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Witness

Daily Devotional for Monday, February 22, 2021 from Rev. Eric Douglass


For our Monday meditations, we have begun a series on ‘early church life,’ as found in the Book of Acts.

Meditations on the Early Church: Witness

Acts 16:16-30: One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out…But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas…bringing them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city”…They threw them into prison…Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”

Trust is a funny thing. It’s usually earned, by keeping promises, remaining loyal to one’s friends, and showing up in times of distress. You are not born a trusted friend, you become one. Such people are not flashy or even charismatic, but they stand beside you come rain or shine. They pick you up after falling. They walk with you, even in “the valley of the shadow of death.” For this reason, their friendship is valued above all others.
 
It took me a long time to learn about trust, but I’m a jailor and I can’t trust anyone. All I see, day and night, are thieves and murderers. And to a person they confess that they didn’t do it. I remember a particular thief, named Cleptos, who was caught with the jeweled necklace of a senator’s wife, which he had stuffed into a small pocket inside his cloak. When the guards questioned him, he said that it wasn’t his cloak. The guards then raided his home, and found an even larger stash of stolen jewels, at which point he said that it wasn’t his house. Then the guards raided one of his shops, and found even more jewels, and, of course, he said that it wasn’t his shop. At some point, you just stop believing in people.
 
So, one day they brought me these two inmates called Paul and Silas, for “disturbing the peace of our city.” Seems like a minor charge, so I asked the guard what they did.
 
“They ruined some rich man’s business.”
 
“Well,” says I, “how did they ruin his business?”
 
“They did an exorcism.”
 
I must have smirked at this, for the guard gave me a nasty look. “Mind your own business, if you know what’s good for you.”
 
“Now look here,” I said with my hands on my hips, “I’ve heard lots of stories in this place, but I’ve never heard of anyone being thrown in here for doing an exorcism right.” I paused, remembering another case: “Now we did get a fellow some time ago who claimed to heal people with exorcisms and magics, but he must have botched ‘em, cause his patients didn’t get no better.”
 
“These men did the exorcism right, for sure, but now her owners can’t make profit off their girl’s prophesies…and they are plenty angry.”
 
At this I stepped back in surprise. “Why would anyone keep a girl from getting cured? Only a monster would do this to a child.” I paused, and added with a snort: “They should be the ones put in jail…these men are heroes!”
 
But the guard had taken all the cheek from me that he could stand. He rolled his eyes, turned on his heel and trapsed back up the stairs. I was still pretty steamed, for I have a daughter, and simply couldn’t image anyone being this cruel to her. Still, I must do my sworn duty to lock these two up. So I walked this Paul and Silas deeper into the dungeon and threw them into an empty cell. But then I whispered, so that the other prisoners couldn’t hear: “I am truly sorry.”
 
As the evening rolled into night, I ate my dinner…which was far too large…as my missus is just convinced that these cold nights will do me in. Only instead of getting cold, I got sleepy. And so, by the second watch of the night, I was nodding off. I got to my feet and stomped around for a while, but when I went back to my chair, I went dead asleep.
 
I was awakened by a violent shaking of the chair and table, and even the ground underneath my feet! I fell to the floor, fearing that the columns would fail and the roof would entomb me in my own jail. After these terrifying moments passed, I looked down the hall…only to find that the doors of the jail were all open…and again felt terror. For the Roman law is clear: if your prisoners escape, you take their place.
 
So, this is how my short life comes to an end…killing myself because an earthquake wrecked my prison. I drew my sword in order to finish what the earthquake had started.
 
“Stop!”
 
I didn’t recognize the voice, but I was willing to stay my execution for a minute longer.
 
“We are all here!”
 
Of course, this is absurd. But when I turned to look, I saw all my prisoners standing in the hall, with Paul and Silas holding them back. I’m not sure what happened next, but I found myself at their feet, crying like a child. I would live to see the sunrise and my wife and my kids. They had saved me from death, even as they condemned themselves to prison time.
 
I’ll admit that I don’t understand these two. They saved a girl from a life of suffering, and they saved me from my own death. Yet they didn’t do it for reward or praise. They acted because they believed it was right. They showed the life of God. And in that moment, they gained my trust…not by a long string of loyal acts, but by an act so true that it could only be understood as divine. I turned to them and asked the only thing that really mattered:
 
“What must I do to be saved?”


Our Lord:
 
You have sent us out as your ambassadors.
Our actions are what the people see,
and what is attributed to the church.
 
Some see Christians as angry people
who fight anyone who is different from them,
demanding carbon-copy uniformity of all.
 
Some see Christians as moralistic people,
who look down on others as failures,
while lifting up themselves as ideal.
 
Some see Christians as weak people,
who refuse to stand-up for what is right
in order to please everyone.
 
But you, our Lord, are kind and strong,
seeking justice laced with mercy,
and purity tinted with gentleness.
 
May our lives be well-molded by your Spirit,
so that the world sees your character in us,
and instead of trusting in us…
 
Turns to trust in you.
 
Amen.

About the Author
Eric Douglass is the covenant pastor at New Hanover Presbyterian Church, where his work emphasizes adult education. Writing meditations is a natural extension of this. During the current pandemic, his goals have been to ensure that the folk at New Hanover see the deep connection that they have to God and the community, even though the community can’t meet in person. This connection is not just one of continued fellowship, but of God’s presence in the community. God stands with us, no matter what path we are on. In this way, God acts like the father and mother who refuse to abandon their child, no matter how wayward that child, or how difficult the situation. Psalm 23 captures this perfectly: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Eric is a graduate of the University of Missouri, initially earning a degree in biology, and then his medical degree from that university’s Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he earned a Masters in Divinity and a Masters in Theology from Union Theological Seminary, here in Richmond. Since that time, he has authored two books, frequently delivers papers at the Society for Biblical Literature, and is an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon College. But the work he enjoys the most is teaching at New Hanover. Whether in casual discussion during the coffee hour, or a structured Sunday School class, or a Wednesday night special event, this is where he finds authentic people engaged in living out their life with God. Eric lives in Mechanicsville, VA, with his wife (Felecia). He enjoys doing fine cabinetry work and hiking. He has two children, Michael and Daniel, who both live in the DC area. His family is especially fond of playing board games, through which they have whittled away many a winter’s evening.