By Linda Rex
This morning one of the members, Pat, and I were outside painting a sign at the church. The sun was slowly rising and the intensity of its heat was increasing as we worked to finish our project. Several people who live in the neighborhood passed by, either jogging or walking their dogs, and we said hello. Nearly all of them were friendly and responded cordially. It really was a pleasant day to be in the neighborhood.
I have been a pastor with Good News Fellowship for just about five years now, and this neighborhood has changed tremendously within that short period of time. A common sight are houses being torn down and new, multiple dwellings being put in their place. The neighborhood is in the midst of a gentrification process, yet in spite of all this change, neighbors are starting to get to know one another and look out for one another. And they are vocal about their desire to create and live in a safe, friendly community.
It’s good to see and experience the feeling of community growing around us. This neighborhood has only begun to feel that way to me within the last year or two. Perhaps the neighborhood seems different partly because I am actually in the neighborhood involved in some activity on some day other than Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. And I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the people who live on the street the church is located on, to learn their names and a little bit about them through the neighborhood association and community activities.
We have a few church neighbors who come over and participate in our weekly Community Café free meal. But these are not the neighbors I saw last night or this morning as we worked on the sign. I have met a few of these neighbors at community events or on the street, but not within our church doors. A few may attend other churches in the Nashville community, but most are uninterested in, and even opposed to, organized Christian religion. Christianity is being viewed more and more as the cause of disharmony and disunity rather than being seen as the solution to it.
One of the conversations we find ourselves having as a pastoral team is how we have a wide variety of people we minister to and who worship with us—all races and strata of society—but none of them are from this group of young adults who are moving into the neighborhood. These are talented and educated professionals who reflect a post-Christian mindset. They are very community-minded, but want nothing to do with organized religion. And I believe they have every reason to reject it when I take into consideration everything they have heard or seen about Christians and their churches.
What I have found since I moved to the South is a strong Christian culture in the Bible Belt—even more so than what I experienced while living in the farming country of Iowa. This Christian culture has its strong points and also its drawbacks. Nowadays in our ministry to people in our community I find I’m talking with someone who already has a lengthy experience with church and the Bible, rather than with someone who is biblically illiterate or unchurched. This means in the apostle Paul’s language, when I share the gospel with this person or preach the Word of God to him or her, I am building on another person’s foundation rather than building directly upon Christ himself.
Conversations with people who are churched can be challenging. What people may believe about the Bible or God might be drawn from the teachings of various televangelists or popular authors, and need some serious reassessment due to their lack of a healthy spiritual foundation in Christ himself and his written Word. But other times, some people are so sure they are right about what they believe there is no room for the Word of God to go to work to bring about renewal and transformation. The Spirit’s efforts to heal and restore are hampered by the haphazard building which has already been done on the foundation which may or may not be Jesus Christ.
This complicates our efforts to fully proclaim the gospel of Christ, as Paul puts it. We are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to minister the word of God to those who already have been built on Christ, and also to deconstruct and rebuild those who need to be reconstructed on a healthy foundation. We are utterly dependent upon Christ and his work by the Spirit in any effort to preach the gospel of Christ to anyone, whether believer or not.
Indeed, it’s a real challenge to reach out to those who are unchurched or who are adamantly opposed to church or Christianity in any form. There is only one option left open to us sometimes and it is a good one, actually. What is left for us to do is to share God’s love with each and every person we meet in tangible ways—we begin to be good neighbors to each and every person, sharing life with them, offering them truth and grace—and sharing in word and deed what it means to live in the truth of who God is and who we are in him.
Our challenge as a church congregation is to get out of the pews and get into relationships with our church neighbors. This is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable task for some of us, but it is one which God has placed before us. Yet it is not given without his promises and his real, personal Presence in the Holy Spirit to go with us.
The early church prayed for God to confirm his Word through signs and wonders, and to extend the reach of the gospel. And Jesus, by his Spirit and with his people, did those very things. We are called to pray and to participate in Christ’s ministry to the world. We have not only because we ask not, and because we depend upon ourselves and our efforts instead of upon Christ. I would encourage those who feel the longing for Jesus to grow and heal this world and this community to pray, to ask, and to anticipate God’s generous outpouring of response.
God is not put off by a post-Christian culture. None of this is about Christianity anyway. It is all about each and every person growing up in his or her Christlikeness—of sharing the common relationship we have all been given in Christ by the Spirit with the God who made us in his image to reflect his likeness and to share his love. And our role is to participate in the process and to follow wherever Christ leads us. May we respond to his call to each of us by his Holy Spirit. There is much to be done.
Dear God, thank you for loving each and every person whether or not they know you, or love you in return. I am grateful you are not put off by our refusal to believe, but rather you continue to work unceasingly to change our hearts and minds and to bring us into deep relationship with you in Christ by your Spirit. We long for you to bring spiritual renewal and transformation to our neighborhood so each person can experience the reality of true community. Make it so, Lord, by your Spirit. Give us each the boldness and courage, as well as the opportunities, to share your Words of life and your love with our neighbors. And Holy Spirit, please confirm your Word by the signs and wonders which are appropriate in this day and age, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’” Romans 15:17–21 NIV
by Linda Rex
I was sitting around the table at a restaurant a while back when a loved one reminded me that it’s important not to assume that I know everything there is to know about something, but to be open to the possibility that I might be wrong. Indeed, this is a difficult thing to accept for someone who grew up in a family where knowing the most about everything was held dear.
Over the years I have learned that how much a person knows about someone is not near as meaningful and important as how well a person knows them in a face-to-face relationship. This applies equally to our conception of God and our Christian faith. I learned at an early age the value of learning everything about God and about the Bible. But it really did not do me much good—indeed it proved to be damaging and restrictive—until I came to know God in a face-to-face, personal relationship.
A relationship with God is not something that is just a button you can turn off or on. In a real way, it is a growing in knowing. Just like any other relationship, it ebbs and flows, has its ups and downs, and grows over time as we open ourselves up to knowing God more intimately and deeply.
What I know and believe about God has changed over the years, and it has impacted my relational knowing of God. In other words, my learning about God has gone through a maturing process, and because I have grown in the way that I see, know and understand God, it has transformed and deepened my personal relationship with him.
When we read the works of Christian authors, we may assume that what they teach at the beginning of their Christian walk will be the same as what they write at the end of their life. But the truth is that we are all on a journey with God throughout our lives. And what we may write at the beginning of our lives will not be the same as what we write at the end because we change, our character and circumstances change, our relationship with God changes, and our point of view changes. In every relationship of significance, how deeply one person knows another will change over time.
Because what we know about God impacts the possibility of our knowing God relationally, it is imperative that we be open to the idea that what we know about God may be wrong. Since each of us was created in the image of God, we were designed to reflect the nature of God to one another. The problem arises when the image of God reflected by significant people in our lives is something other than who God really is. In other words, we place the face of these significant people over the face of God. How well we know God relationally, unfortunately, has a lot to do with how well we relate to people who impact our lives as we mature.
Another factor that impacts the possibility of knowing God relationally is how we interpret and understand family, culture, church and the written Word of God. Speaking for myself, I have experienced some major paradigm shifts in my understanding of all these things, but God has done this so that I could really know and understand him as the loving, caring God he really is. God has slowly, but surely, removed the idols from my life so I could see and know him in his true nature. I still have a long way to go, and I know the mystery of who God is will keep me fascinated for all eternity, but I’m extremely grateful that he is opening himself up to me more and more each day.
The story we find in the Holy Bible is God’s story. When we read it through the lens of Jesus Christ, then we are reading the Scripture through the correct lens. The Word in Jesus Christ came to reveal the true character and nature of God as Father, Son and Spirit, a God who would lay it all down so that his creatures would share life with him for all eternity. Even though we has humans have rejected this God who seeks a relationship with us individually and collectively, he has still done everything necessary and possible to ensure that we are included in his divine relationship of love.
God never ceases to draw us to himself. He works throughout each of our lives and circumstances to bring us to a deeper understanding of who he really is and how much he loves us and wants to include us in his life and love. He allows us to reject him and live in a way that is in opposition to the truth of our being (made in the image of God), and we experience the pain and suffering that go with that choice. But he never stops pursuing us.
Because he is bound to us at the core of our being through his humanity, Christ is present in a real way in every moment and in every situation. By the Spirit, God is involved in every part of our lives. We are held in God’s life and love—rest in that truth and embrace it. Awaken to the reality that you are truly and thoroughly loved and God seeks to know you and relate to you intimately. Let him be the one Friend that will never leave or forsake you, because that is Who he really is. Christ is your life.
Father, thank you that in Christ and by your Spirit, you have included each of us in your life and love. Thank you for making us your very own. Awaken us to the truth that we are deeply and thoroughly loved. Free us from the impulse to run and hide. Remove the fear of being truly known and enable us to trust you to love us without condemnation or rejection. Enable us by your grace to live in the true reality of who we are in you. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:25–26 NASB
by Linda Rex
It’s come to my mind quite often lately how much I have taken for granted the gift of being able to read, and to read quickly and with comprehension.
I go places and find that I have to be able to read the signs to know where to go and where not to go, how fast to go, what street I need to turn at, and so on. I walk into the store and find I have to be able to read the labels to make sure I’m buying the right thing.
The blessing of reading, by necessity, includes the blessing of sight, unless a person learns to read Braille. Someone was telling me the other day about a man who was more or less blind and who, because he couldn’t see to read the labels on the cans at the store, had eaten dog food for years. That seems like a stretch to me, but who am I to say any different? I just realized, though, what a blessing it was to be able to see and to read.
I have been finding also when leading worship in my congregations, that I must never take it for granted that the people who come to church have a Bible, or if they have one, that they are able to read it. We want all people to participate with us in the learning and understanding of God’s Word as they grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. So the Apostle Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to not neglect the public reading of scripture is just as relevant to us today as it was then. This is why we read the Scriptures out loud during our worship services and in our study groups.
It is easy to ignore or neglect the reading of Scripture. It can be a chore we’d rather avoid. But if we feel we’ve read the Scriptures and we know everything that’s in the Bible, then we most likely are merely reading the Scriptures for information. It is no wonder that it is meaningless, boring and empty reading to us. But if and when we have entered into a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ, we are able to read the Scriptures in a whole new way.
We are able to read them as God’s Word to us both collectively and personally. We can begin to seek Jesus Christ in the midst of them. Before we begin to read, we say, “Lord, what do you have to say to me today?” We invite the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts to receive whatever it is God would like to say to us in that moment. We ask Jesus by his Spirit to live out in us what we hear in his Word.
It is often in the hearing as well as reading of the Word of God that conviction occurs and life-change begins. The Spirit of God goes to work when the Word of God is read, whether silently, or out loud. We continue in the reading of the Word of God day by day for God’s Word to us is made new to us moment by moment in our relationship with Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
Thank you, Father, for giving us the Living Word, Jesus Christ, who came for us in our place to live out our perfect life in his human flesh and who comes to us in the written Word by your Holy Spirit. Give us a holy hunger for your Word and may your Word transform us as we read and hear it each and every day. In Jesus name by your Holy Spirit we pray. Amen.
“Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them.” 1 Timothy 4:13 (NLT)