Lift Up Your Heads
By Linda Rex
HOPE—Last night I read a post on the local police precinct page which told the story of a missing person. Struggling with depression due to the loss of a loved one, this person left her life behind and disappeared into the metropolis of Nashville.
As I read this story, my heart went out to her. I thought of what I might say to someone in her situation. It’s really hard to find anything meaningful to say to someone who is extremely depressed—I’ve been there, and it just doesn’t help.
My genetic makeup means my postpartum depression with both of my children turned into clinical depression, and in times of extreme crisis, I am susceptible to depression. I remember one day I forced myself to take my newborn son for a walk even though I was in a horrid blue funk. I could barely get one foot in front of the other. When I got home, I received a call from the nurse who helped with my pregnancy—she lived nearby and had seen me out walking. She asked me a few questions and then told me I was depressed. “Call the doctor,” she said.
I made the call and I’m glad I did. I learned that my mother had suffered this same difficulty with having her children and it was a natural response to what had happened to me. Depression is not something to be ashamed of or to pretend isn’t happening. It’s a real thing, and needs to be dealt with. If we need medication to help get our brain readjusted, then that is what we need. If we need counseling to change the way we respond to people or events, then we need to get it and make the changes needed to get well.
We express our love to our family and friends by getting the treatment we need, whether counseling or medication, and we keep with it, even though we may think we don’t need it any more. Some forms of mental illness require ongoing medication—we need to be humble enough to keep taking it even though we think we don’t need it any more. This is a real struggle, and I can understand when a person wishes they could live without this necessary medical intervention.
Taking into account our need for medication and counseling, though, we also need to grasp the reality to the core of our being that we are now and forever held in God’s love. We are entering the time of Advent, the time in which we contemplate and celebrate the coming of our God into our humanity in the infant Jesus, and we begin with hope.
The people of Israel and Judah had wrestled in their relationship with God for millennia. God called them into relationship with himself, explained to them what it looked like to live in relationship with him, and gave them a way of grace, of sacrifices and liturgy, through which they could draw near to him and express their love and devotion to him. As time passed, this nation turned away from God, experienced the consequences of having done so, and then turned back again, only in time to turn away again. Finally, God allowed the destruction of the temple and the captivity of both Israel and Judah.
In time God set the nation free to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. But from that time on, Israel/Judah has always been under the control of another nation. Between then and the time of Jesus, they experienced oppression, the desecration of their temple, and the lack of prophetic leadership. Lost in the darkness of God’s silence, the nation cried out for deliverance. And where there was such darkness, gloom, and despair, God entered.
We can get so focused on our despair, on our suffering or loss or the feeling that we are left all alone, that we often miss what is right in front of us. Indeed, as Luke writes, when we see everything falling apart in our lives or our world, that is when we need to realize that our redemption is near. God’s kingdom is at the door—for the simple reason that God is present, God is near, in the person of Jesus Christ.
God indeed entered Israel’s darkness and suffering, though in a way which was different than expected. God may have had a heavenly choir blessing the event, but God’s coming or advent was the birth of a baby placed in a manger, in humble circumstances, completely dependent upon his mother and father and caught in the midst of a dangerous world which was already seeking his death.
The coming of the Word of God into human flesh sparked the death of Bethlehem’s infants—the evil king Herod could not stand the thought of anyone being king but him. And yet, in the midst of this darkness and evil, the light had dawned. God was present in the person of Jesus Christ. God was experiencing every circumstance we go through in our broken world, coming to know personally the pains and trials of our human existence. He knew laughter and sadness, joy and pain, loss and blessing—everything which makes us what we are. And he did not sin.
It was not enough that God came to us to be where we are and what we are. He gave himself over completely to us, allowing us to do to him whatever we willed. He allowed us to pour out on him all our wrath against God, all our refusal to allow God to be the God he is. Since creation we have sought to make God conform to our will, refusing to submit to his. And Jesus paid the price for it, even though he didn’t deserve it.
Darkness—in so many ways. It may have seemed, as Jesus hung on the cross, that there was only death and oblivion ahead of him. But he knew the secret of hope: When everything is falling apart, our redemption is closer than ever—it is near, right at the doors. How did Jesus know this? Because he knew his Abba intimately. He knew that even though it felt like he was abandoned and all alone, that nothing could ever separate him from his heavenly Father. Nothing, not even death or evil, could separate the heavenly oneness of the Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit. God’s love, which binds us to him, never fails.
Because of who Jesus is—God in human flesh—and what he has done—died in our place and on our behalf, rising again from the grave—we have hope. We may lose friends and family members to death, but we are bound together in Christ both now and forever, and death no longer has power over us. In Christ we have the hope of the God’s presence in our every day lives and circumstances in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s ascension to God, bearing our humanity, and the sending of the Spirit, means we are never alone, ever. This is our hope.
In the midst of horrific loss and destruction, God is still near. When we have lost those dear to us, are caught in despair and feeling all alone, the truth is we are never alone. Immanuel—God is with us. When things look as though they are coming to a catastrophic end—God’s redemption is near. Lift up your heads—for here he comes!
Thank you, Abba, for loving us, for sending your Son to dwell in our humanity, redeeming us from all we brought upon ourselves. Holy Spirit, grant us the great hope of Jesus, that we may know with certainty that Abba loves us and will never leave us, no matter how things may look right now. Grant, loving Spirit, that we might experience the reality of Immanuel, God with us, in Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. … So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near.” Luke 21:28 NASB
The Relationship Factor
by Linda Rex
If I were to summarize the programs currently available on my cable television, I would say that the majority have something to do with either crime and murder investigation, magic and the supernatural, or broken and confused relationships of some kind. If I work at it, I can occasionally find something uplifting and educational, but it seems that any more, movies rarely have community at their core.
Yesterday I was reading an article posted by a family member which showed that tests on mice indicate that the best antidote for drug addiction is healthy relationships with family and community, and meaningful things to do with one’s life. (See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html) This did not come as a surprise to me, since I’ve been told in the past as a parent that the best way to keep my kids off of drugs is to build a strong, loving relationship with them. There is something powerful and significant about relationships based on love and grace.
I believe that society’s current obsession with materialist consumerism, as James Torrance calls it, contributes to the prevalence of addictions in just about every form imaginable. We are preoccupied with taking care of our needs, wants and desires. If we are barely scraping by financially, we can begin to see the world through the lens of how we are going to take care of our needs—food on the table, gas for the car, paying our growing medical bills. Even if we are comfortable financially, we may often still struggle, because we see the world through the lens of desire, passion and loneliness.
In either situation, our focus is inward, toward ourselves. We are preoccupied with taking care of what we believe needs to be taken care of. Taking care of our needs is indeed an important thing to do, but the way we go about meeting those needs is significant. Too many people are trying to meet the needs of their body, soul and spirit on their own, without any faith, hope or love in their lives. So many of us are living as isolated human beings, without meaningful, loving relationships with others.
I saw this many times when I served doing intake at Greenhouse Ministries. When a person or family came in with catastrophic circumstances in their life, they were often at a place of dire need. Those who had some form of relational support, especially those who had a personal relationship with God and with a community of faith, would approach their circumstances with serious optimism and hope. They were just looking for a little help to get over the hump.
Others who had none of these things were often overcome by despair, desperation and could only think about getting their next meal or a place to stay. When asked about a relationship with God, they thought of it only in terms of making it to church, which for many of them would have been problematic, seeing that they probably would not have been warmly welcomed even if they had shown up at church on Sunday. It’s not hard to see how many medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol so that they don’t have to deal with the pain of loss, loneliness and despair.
I believe God is calling the church today to open up our hearts and doors to people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and cultures. He is calling us all back into loving, intimate relationships with him and with others—he’s calling us into Christian community. He never meant for any of us to go through the struggles of life alone.
When we seek first to build authentic, wholesome relationships with others that are centered around a common love and devotion to the God who made us and sent us his Son Jesus Christ and his Spirit of love, we will find that all the rest will fall into place in new ways.
The early church had many of the same struggles with poverty and need that we do today, and they met those needs through sharing and caring. It was that loving community which bore witness to the love and care of God for each and every one of us which he demonstrated in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. This is what is meant by the kingdom of God or universal church. It is a community of faith, hope and love centered in Jesus Christ.
We, as followers of Jesus Christ, have a lot of repenting to do, and a lot of growing as well. It is God’s love and grace given in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit which has been so transformational for us. We dare not try to keep it to ourselves, but rather must begin to open it wide to the world around us which is in such desperate longing for faith, hope and love expressed through relationships. To feed the hungry, visit the lonely and imprisoned—this is more than just meeting physical needs—it is meeting the deep hunger of the human heart for relationship with God and with others that we were created for. It is being truly human.
Thank you, Father, that you have given yourself to us in Jesus and through the Spirit, opening yourself up to us in a relationship of love and grace. Impart to us your heart of faith, hope and love, and pour out from us into others your Spirit so that they may join together with us in Christian community. Bind us together in love and grace. Through Jesus, our Lord and in your Spirit. Amen.
“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:31–33 NASB