Defend & Devour

One of the skunks I mentioned in my last post is gone. I saw it the other day when I was out for a walk. At the end of my street, as you turn the corner, someone had apparently hit it with their car. And — skunks being skunks — I smelled it before I saw it.

As you read this, I’m guessing not many of you are sad. The demise of skunks is not usually cause for grief. If, on the other hand, I had hit the fawn that ran in front of my car the other night, I’m sure more of us would have felt a tinge of regret (including my not-easily-impressed-with-wildlife wife, who let out an “aww” as the little deer stumbled across the road in front of us). Or, let’s take it one step further: if it had been my neighbor’s big, white fluffy dog, there would have been genuine compassion for his pet.

Why the difference? Well, between the skunk and the deer, it’s what we might call the “cuteness factor.” Deer, especially when it reminds us of Bambi, evoke more of a sense of attraction than a skunk who may look like a Disney character, but certainly doesn’t smell like a Disney character.

To most of us, a skunk has no natural attractive qualities — especially with the sense that attraction moves you closer to something; in that sense, no, I am definitely not attracted to skunks. Even so, when a skunk lets off stink, a skunk is simply doing what skunks do. And they do that for a reason. Sensing danger, they pull out their strongest response: Stink the enemy away.

I mean: how can you blame a skunk for doing what it has to do to defend itself? Isn’t that what the animal kingdom is about? It’s why dogs bark; it’s why cats scratch. It’s why bees sting and mice bite. They are doing what comes naturally, especially when threatened: they are defending themselves.

But animals have another instinct: to devour. Less about protection, this is about consumption — for every animal has to eat.

Both of these are the animal condition: defend and devour. It is the way of survival. To me, this is best pictured in the snake, who is pretty good at both: defending and devouring. A snake will bite you if threatened; and will swallow you if hungry. I didn’t go looking for examples of this, for I really have no desire to see a snake do either, but video of snakes defending and devouring are, no doubt, just a click away.

So what? Why blog about animals? Well, for one, it’s everywhere we look. On the one hand, it’s the animal condition — one that should not surprise us. Animals will instinctively, without malice, do what comes naturally to them. You stick your hand in a snake hole, you will get bit. Whether you do it intentionally or by accident doesn’t matter; a snake’s gonna do what a snake’s gonna do.

Same with mosquitoes. And gorillas. Even viruses. We fight against the flu and ebola, as we should, but they bear us no malice. They are simply doing what viruses — what all living creatures do — defend and devour. In fact, I think we could extend the description even further, to phenomena of nature. Hurricanes can be devastating and deadly. And I wish no one to get caught in their wake. But hurricanes are simply what happens when the right conditions of temperature, moisture, wind, and atmosphere combine in a powerful way. They don’t intend us harm; harm is simply what results when they simply do what hurricanes do.

For such is life on this fragile planet we call earth. Creatures and creations of all kinds that exist to defend and devour.

Of course, these instincts are not contained to snakes and skunks. They are also true of humans, too. Most of what we do, instinctively, at least, is to devour or defend. We work so we can have money so we can eat. Devour. We struggle, especially in America, with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, in part because of what we eat. Devour.

On the flip side, we go to the doctor to deal with our heart disease and diabetes. Defend. As a country, we raise up an army. As individuals, we lock our doors. We take vaccines. We stay away from wandering skunks and questionable holes in the ground.

But this principle of defending and devouring goes further. The guy at work takes credit for your work. Your neighbor loses her cool when your dog poops in her yard. The lady in the Lexus takes your parking spot at the mall. Your facebook “friend” goes on a rant that gets personal and political at the same time.

What’s going on here? Well, it’s the animal inclination to defend and devour. And what’s our normal response? To defend and devour right back.

And like our animal friends, it’s only natural; it’s what we instinctively do. Often, without much thought or consideration, people hungry for more (power, position, comfort, support, money, acceptance) will devour. And people who are afraid, or hurting, or uncertain, or doubting, or discouraged, or wounded, will defend. And often, in both cases, it’s not pretty.

Which tells me that there is only one way to stop this cycle. Unhealthy devouring and defending continues until someone doesn’t return kind-for-kind. Instinctive acts continue until someone recognizes that “hurting people hurt people,” and adding hurt to hurt doesn’t heal the hurt. But turning the cheek might.

Maybe that’s why Jesus told us this in Matthew 5.39. The only way to live in the world, but not be of the world, is not to live as the world. The only way to be a part of the animal kingdom while not living as animals, is to rise about the “defend and devour” instinct.

In other words: follow the lead of Jesus — who came not to be served, but to serve. Who came not to devour, but give his life as a ransom. Who, when he most needed to defend himself — and could have — didn’t simply turn the other cheek, but turned his whole life over to the Power & Principalities that devoured him.

But in the giving, in the dying, in what was certain defeat, came victory. And — shockingly — the thing we have no defense against (Sin & Evil) was defeated. And the One Thing that is certain to devour all of us (Death) is — amazingly — turned on itself, and new life arises.

So, in a world of defending and devouring, I want to remember two things:

  • There are a LOT of hurting people who are acting on instinct. In a million different ways, we need to turn the other cheek, to show them and the world a way not animal, but human — truly human, as modeled by the One who is truly and completely human.
  • And with that complete human, Jesus, overcoming death, nothing in this life ultimately has the power to devour us. With sin and evil defeated, I don’t have to defend myself. Jesus has already done that. I simply need to put down my weapons, and allow grace and love to win the day: in my life, in our churches, and in our world.

The Surprising Word that Won the Spelling Bee

The National Spelling Bee, which began in Louisville in 1925, held its 91st competition last month. The Bee begins with 11 million kids, age 15 and under — all vying to get a spot in the national championship in the Washington DC area. (Apparently, there’s no minimum age; last year, a 5-year-old made it through the preliminary rounds. This year, an 8-year-old was among the 519 who made it to the finals — though I gotta ask: What’s he been doin’ the past 3 years?)

But what’s most fascinating to me is the word that won it all. With the championship on the line, what did Karthik Nemmani have to spell in order to wear the crown? Koinonia.

Koinonia is a term that is best-known for appearing in, of all places, the Bible. And specifically, it’s most quoted reference is Acts 2.42 — a description of what the first believers of Jesus committed themselves to practice. Included in the mix is “the koinonia” — a word that usually is translated “fellowship.”

Now, when we use the word ‘fellowship’ in church, it’s usually as an adjective. As in: Let’s gather in the Fellowship Hall for a fellowship meal sponsored by the Fellowship Class. All good things, for sure; but even better because they point to the deeper meaning of the word koinonia.

Koinonia is sharing; a coming together. It’s a bond; it’s having something in common. It’s unity, oneness, participation. It’s where our lives come together in such a way that something happens that’s indispensable; essential; life-changing. 

In fact, a form of the word koinonia appears in Acts 2.44 and 4.32,  both of which describe how the early Christians shared their possessions in common. So, I think it’s appropriate to say that koinonia is where we come together to meet each other’s needs as the family — because we have already come together to be family, in Christ.

Koinonia, then, is not just the pinnacle of the Spelling Bee; it’s the pinnacle of the Christian life. Koinonia is what we share with Jesus (1 Corinthians 1.9), and, as a result, what we then share with each other (described in Philippians 2.1-4, and then powerfully illustrated by the description of Jesus in verses 5-11).

Koinonia is giving ourselves so completely to Christ and to each other that whatever comes — whether it’s suffering in this life, glory in the next, or anything in between — we share it with Jesus, and with each other.

But koinonia doesn’t stop there. We see this at the end of Acts 2, in verse 47, where the first believers were praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Or, at least that’s how the NIV reads. But in this place, I think the King James does a better job, when it says: “they had favor with all the people.”

The idea here, I think, is that the earliest believers lived in such a way that the grace they experienced — the koinonia that they shared — went out from them toward all the people. Church wasn’t just about them, but about taking this wonderful fellowship and unity and purpose out there — to the temple, in the homes, and out where people were.

In his book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter tells of a woman who worked in a grocery store checkout lane. Her “sphere of influence” was only a few feet, but everyday she greeted customers with warmth, remembering their names and asking about their families. She would end their brief interactions by saying that she was going to pray for their families.

Over time, this began to cause problems … because people wanted to get in her lane, resulting in long lines. They would wait, though, because she encouraged them. When she died, years after she had retired, the church was packed — as people came to share how this woman had blessed them in her checkout lane.

That’s what koinonia looks like — when we take it out there, where we live. And there are a bunch of ways to do that. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Look Up: Notice people around you. Start by considering who else is seeking to follow Jesus where you live, where you work, where you go to school, where you work out or play cards or golf, and connect with them. (Perhaps, if you don’t find it too hokey, you can call these folks your “Koinonia Krew.”)
  • Look Around: Notice those around you who could use some encouragement, some love, a glimpse of grace. Be available to them. Enlist your Koinonia Krew to join you in praying for, and blessing, these folks.
  • Put Down Your Phone: How many times have you seen people in public not engaging with those right in front of them because they are staring at a screen? How many times have you been that person?
  • Pick Up Your Phone. But wait, Jeff, didn’t you just say….? Yes, but in this case, maybe you need to pick up your phone and reach out to someone who needs to receive a word of encouragement, or forgiveness, or just a simple text that you are thinking about them.
  • Go Outside: Go out in your neighborhood, or in a community space — and see who you run into. Last night my son and I were outside throwing a baseball, when I noticed 6 skunk crossing our street. I don’t remember the last time I saw a skunk (alive, anyway), and here there were at least 6 skittering across the road. (I saw “at least 6” because I sure wasn’t going to get close enough to do a head count.) Anyway, that led to a conversation with the neighbor across the street — someone I barely knew. Who knew skunks on a street could be the source of a refreshing scent — in this case, a whiff of koinonia?
  • Take a Moment: At least once a day, ask someone: How are you doing? Then stop, and really listen.

The point: you can go take the koinonia we share out there, every day, everywhere you go. You don’t need a formal church program, a big budget, a ministry staff, or be a part of a ministry staff to go and love people. You simply need to be grounded in the reality that you are connected to Jesus and to his people — and then go live it out.

The Surprising Bible Passage That Launched the Church

Imagine you were given one opportunity to speak to a group and convince them that something brand new was breaking through. Consider what you would say if you were given the opportunity to speak on behalf of a radical shift in thinking, and you had one shot at it. What would you say?

Now, consider if you had to speak on behalf of something brand new in the world of faith and God and religious practice? If you were afforded the opportunity to inaugurate a new work of God, how would you do it?

That’s exactly what Acts 2 tells us that Peter did. On the Jewish Day of Pentecost, with faithful people gathered in Jerusalem, coming from all points of the planet — we read that Peter is the primary spokesperson of a brand new work of God, never before seen. And what is striking to me is the passage that Peter begins with. In the very first message about the work the Messiah has come to unleash, Peter and the early Church have one chance — and only one — to ground this new movement in Scripture.

That passage? It’s not from the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy). It isn’t even from a major prophet such as Isaiah or Ezekiel; instead, it’s from a “minor” one, Joel — one who fills a whopping 4 pages in the Bible. With a veritable smorgasbord of scriptural references, the fact that Joel is chosen can’t be a coincidence; it’s clearly not chosen at random. Instead, the words from this minor prophet must be considered major in the re-formation of the people of God, and in this new work that the Spirit is doing.

And so, quoting Joel, Peter tells any who will listen: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people” (NIV). Hmm, that’s interesting. Seems like this new work of God is going to be bigger than before; reach way farther than in the past.

Peter continues with his quotation from Joel: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy; your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

In this new work being unleashed today, Peter says, it is no longer just about the Jewish people; Gentiles are included, too. If that weren’t earth-shattering enough, he goes on: this new work also will not be focused on status or social standing; ALL people from all walks of life will experience AND speak of this new work of God.

This includes not just the old, but the young. This involves not simply the influential and important, but the overlooked and disregarded. And, Peter makes clear, it involves both men and women.

What Peter speaks of in Acts 2, Paul powerfully summarizes in Galatians 3.26-28: Because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, all who have been baptized into him are now his children. And among his children there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. Paul, like his predecessor Peter, is not saying those differences no longer exist; instead, he is saying, they are no longer determinative for our place in God’s family. Instead, as Paul makes clear to the Galatians: “All of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

It’s a wonderful principle, one that hardly any Acts 2-believing person would dispute. But what does it mean in practice?

Well, I think we get to see exactly that as Acts and the New Testament unfold. Take, for example, Acts 21. In a casual aside, we read in verse 9 that Philip the Evangelist has four daughters who prophesy. In this verse, not one, but two words are exactly the same as we see back in Acts 2: daughter and prophesy.

And though this passage is easy to miss, I would suggest that, for this very reason, it is worth our attention. Because Luke can mention these 4 women without any further comment demonstrates how these daughters are a natural (and unsurprising) fulfillment of Peter’s quote of Joel in Acts 2. The fact that Luke can casually mention them is a testimony, I believe, to the fact that they weren’t alone. Apparently Luke doesn’t have to spend a lot of time here because these women weren’t the only female prophets. If anything, I think Luke would say: What’s the big surprise here? Weren’t you paying attention to what happened on the Day of Pentecost?

Another example is found in the married couple who first appear in Acts 18. In verse 2, Luke makes a point of telling us that Paul meets a man named Aquila. And, almost as if an afterthought, Luke tells us that Aquila recently came to Corinth with his wife Priscilla. Paul forms a bond with these folks, not just because of their common faith (all 3 are Jewish believers in Jesus), but also because they share a common trade (tent-making).

That’s all we know of this couple until they show up again in verse 18, when Paul decides that, on the next leg of his missionary journey, he wants to invite Priscilla & Aquila to join him. Note how quickly it goes from meeting Aquila (and oh, by the way, his wife), to: Paul enlisting Priscilla & Aquila as fellow missionaries. In a casual but clear inversion of names, Luke is making a point: Paul is taking Priscilla and Aquila along as partners in the work. And by the end of the chapter, Priscilla & Aquila are teaching a guy named Apollos; together, they are sharing the way of Jesus and mentoring a new disciple.

And that’s it. That’s all we learn of this couple in the book of Acts. But they do show up 3 other times in the New Testament — with all 3 passages easy-to-overlook if we’re not paying attention. In 1 Corinthians 16.19, Paul mentions that Aquila & Priscilla have a church meeting in their home. In 2 Timothy 4.19, Paul sends them greetings.

Finally, the 2 show up in Romans 16. It’s a fascinating chapter; again, full of names easy to overlook. But each name — each person — has meaning to Paul. The chapter begins with Paul vouching for Phoebe, a woman Paul calls a deacon, and who is apparently delivering the letter of Romans. (By the way, in ancient times, delivering a letter wasn’t a postal duty; it also had an explanatory role, as well. Phoebe was likely the one Paul entrusted to read Romans and communicate its message to the gathering of the church in Rome.)

And after Phoebe, Paul then starts saying ‘hello’ to his friends and co-workers in Rome. And the first ones he thinks of to greet are Priscilla & Aquila, calling them “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” Later, Paul will use that same term to describe Timothy (Romans 16.21), and elsewhere, Titus (2 Corinthians 8.23), along with Mark & Luke (Philemon 24). Paul references Apollos (the same one Priscilla & Aquila taught) as a fellow worker (1 Corinthians 3.9). In Philippi, Paul mentions Euodia & Syntyche, calling them “my fellow workers,” describing how these women have struggled with him in the cause of the gospel (Philippians 4.3).

All of this to say: Paul uses “my fellow worker” to describe, not simply folks who hang around with him, but who are a vital part of his ministry — men and women who are working alongside him in the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ.

In other words, they are fulfilling the very words Joel spoke about and Peter preached about. This new work of God, from its very first days, was intended to be a family where all people of all backgrounds used their gifts and talents to share and speak and serve in a way that brings glory to Jesus.

So, the challenge, as I see it, for any church that strives to be an Acts 2 church; a New Testament church, is this: How can we be a place where everyone is invited to be changed and transformed by Jesus? And how can we be a family where everyone is then encouraged, equipped, and fully unleashed to use their gifts?