blessings

Poor as I Am

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By Linda Rex

Yesterday I found myself humming and whistling a tune as I was using Adobe InDesign® to create a brochure where I work. The tune just kept popping back into my head. When I finally paid attention to what it was, I realized it was the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” I was amused that this particular song was running around in my head, but I decided the intense summer heat made caroling quite appropriate—anything to stay cool!

It’s not unusual, though, for the Spirit to spark a hymn or spiritual song in my thoughts—many times this happens when I wake up in the morning, and it usually is an indication of what’s on God’s mind and/or my mind at the moment. I believe this is what the apostle Paul was talking about when he told the Ephesians, “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; …” (Eph. 5:18b-19 NASB)

This carol has several stories associated with it, but just taken at face value, it tells how a king and his page determine to aid a poor man by bringing him food and wood for fuel during a severe winter snowstorm. The conclusion of the song tells us that those who bless people in need will themselves be blessed.

When I look back at my life, I did have times when life was very difficult for me and my family. We struggled to make ends meet, and I would have been very happy at times to have had someone to simply bring me food and fuel. But the truth is, if I am very honest with myself, no matter how bad things got, we were still very well off and blessed. We were not really in need the way people in other countries or even in certain places here in America struggle just to find their next meal or to have a place to live.

I believe there were very good reasons we were extremely blessed. First, we had a support system. We had family, friends, and church members who were willing to come alongside us and offer a helping hand, often without us even asking for help. They were not ashamed of our poverty but were willing to lend a hand as they saw a need.

On the other hand, they kept their distance when they knew it would not have been to our benefit or theirs for them to help us. I struggled with my attitude at times because we were left to struggle when we could have been helped. But as time when by, I began to see that I had things to learn which I would not have learned if someone had stepped in and taken care of things for me in those particular situations.

The other reason I believed we were so blessed and did not have to struggle as much as I know others struggle was because of God’s mercy. He was very gracious to us and answered prayers when I turned to him in total dependency upon him. So often a need which I believed was impossible to meet was taken care of when I brought it to him in prayer. And many of those times I knew I didn’t deserve God’s help because I had to admit the struggle was usually due to my own mismanagement or neglect. It was solely because of God’s gracious provision that we were blessed.

To struggle in life in some way, though, is to open a space for God to work—if we are willing—and to prepare us to be able to lift up and help others who are struggling. Because we have borne heavy burdens, we find we have the strength to come alongside those who are overburdened and to help ease their load. God doesn’t mean for us to carry every burden of every person—they need to be responsible for what is theirs. But we are to be there to help ease the burdens of those who cannot carry their own load by themselves. (Gal. 6:2, 5)

The real story inside the story I find in this Christmas carol may be something of my own creation—I don’t know. But what I see is Jesus inviting you and me to participate with him in his care of the poor and needy. Sometimes the storms in people’s lives are powerful and dangerous, and they may drive us away and sap our strength as we try to help. But as we walk in Christ by the Spirit, allowing him to walk in front of us and carry the weight of the storm, we will find the heart, strength, and endurance to continue in our service to others in spite of the difficulty and danger.

What’s been on my mind a lot lately is what Greg Williams wrote in his article “Mind the Gap.” He wrote: “We say we value being a healthy expression of church, actively following the Spirit in participating with Jesus in seeking the lost and making new disciples, but that is not what we always do. There is a gap between our aspirational values (what we say we value) and our actual actions. We need to close the gap…” It is so easy to have great intentions but not to actually live out the truth of what we believe.

For me, personally, this last couple years has been a reawakening to God’s call upon my life in a lot of areas. As a pastor it is easy to slip into a way of living in which there are gaps between what we believe and teach, and how we live out our daily lives. I certainly do not want to be a hypocrite, but if I am honest with myself, I have to admit in many areas how I live doesn’t necessarily match up with what I believe about who God is and who I am in Christ. And that grieves me deeply. It is not how I want to be. The good news is, though, that very grief shows the Spirit at work within me through Jesus Christ.

In other words, before we see ourselves as the page following in the king’s footsteps, we must first see ourselves as the poor man gathering sticks in the storm for a little fuel. Our own efforts are feeble at best—we do pretty well for a while, but when the storms of life come, we find ourselves inadequate to the task. Or we find that gathering sticks when we already have sticks is empty and fruitless work. Either way, we need to recognize that our poverty is poverty of spirit and heart, not always of physical provision. Receiving help for the moment is good, but we need help which will last into eternity.

This is why we need Jesus. We need to lay aside the old garments which are of no use to us any longer and put on Christ. The old ways which sustained us for so long need to be replaced by our new life in Christ. The poor man gathering fuel might have refused to receive the blessing offered him. If he had, he would have continued to suffer, not only going without food and fuel, but now also without companionship on his journey of suffering. In refusing the new life offered to him, his poverty would have increased all the more.

God does not mean for any of us to stay in our poverty-ridden state of unbelief and disobedience. We have been given all the heavenly blessings in Christ Jesus—this is our new life. We are included in God’s life and love and are encouraged to participate in all God is doing in this world to bring about healing, renewal, and wholeness. We are blessed by God with all these gifts not so we can keep them to ourselves, but so we can share them with others. So, this is what we need to be actively doing—blessing others as we have been blessed. This is the perichoretic life.

Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and your boundless grace in your Son Jesus. We pray by your Spirit that we will begin more and more to actually live out the truth of who we are in you and what Christ has forged for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. May we each and every day acknowledge our poverty of spirit and heart is fully supplied in Jesus, and freely share all these spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus with others. In your Name, we pray. Amen.

“Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you. …You were running superbly! Who cut in on you, deflecting you from the true course of obedience?” Galatians 5:1, 7 MSG

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. …You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” Galatians 5:1, 7 NASB

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?’

‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither.’

Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.’

‘Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

(https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/3674124/The-story-behind-the-carol-Good-King-Wenceslas.html: Accessed 7/12/2018)

Sharing the Gospel Amid Abundance

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By Linda Rex

Many years ago, I attended a mega church for a while. It was located a little distance from me but provided some important counseling resources which were not available in my neighborhood, nor with the other church I normally attended.

One of the first things I noticed about this church was that nearly every car in the parking lot was only two to three years old and in good condition. I was a little embarrassed to have to park my old clunker next to the shiny minivans and SUV’s, but I did it anyway. As I walked inside the building, the people around me seemed friendly, though preoccupied. They were good folks, and I found it quite easy to melt into the crowd and not have to engage anyone in conversation.

After a few weeks, I became more and more aware of the subtle difference in financial status between me and the other people in the church. Most of the conversations between the people in the study group I joined involved decisions about a second or third car, a summer home, or a long vacation in Hawaii. I did not feel able to contribute anything to these conversations because I was still wondering how on minimum pay I would handle all the bills I had coming due in the next week. It was rather awkward for me, but I was there to study the Word of God with fellow believers, not to wrestle with financial inequities. So I let it go.

As the years have passed I have on occasion experienced more of this disparity between the wealthy church, and the broken community within and without the church who needs helped and healed. I have met and grown to love some pretty amazing people for whom the distress of suffering financially or physically is a foreign concept, or one they have experienced only briefly in their lives.

These people are compassionate and generous, but they can sometimes be completely out of touch with the everyday struggles of the needy. It’s not that they don’t care or are indifferent, but that it’s either not a part of their everyday experience, or they feel it would not be genuinely helpful for them to take on responsibilities which belong to the people who are struggling. And they have a valid point.

The culture we live in today often looks perplexedly at the Christian church, wondering why we are not more helpful to those who are suffering. I have no doubt there is room for us to grow in our generosity and helpfulness towards the poor and needy. But it may be that those who are being critical of us have a skewed view of what it means to have life and to have it abundantly. In other words, it’s possible we value different things than they do.

Historically the church understood that divine abundance doesn’t necessarily involve monetary wealth. The kind of abundance Jesus spoke of has a whole lot more to do with the generous outflowing of love and grace from the God who made us and redeemed us than with physical wealth, popularity, and material goods. True abundance involves growing in our relationship with the God who made us and growing in Christlikeness, which involves struggle and sometimes suffering. It involves our participation in a spiritual community which has Christ at the center.

Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor is it a sin to live comfortably in a safe neighborhood where everyone has large homes, big yards, and a swimming pool in the backyard. These blessings provide ample opportunities which would not exist otherwise, and include their own unique set of dangers and temptations. There are benefits and potholes in every walk of life.

Throughout the centuries the church as a whole and individually has at times fallen prey to the subtle deceit of greed in all of its forms. The financial well-being of churches and their leaders sometimes preempts the care of the poor and needy. The health-and-wealth gospel distorts the truth about the Word of God, equating financial and material success and abundance with proof of goodness, success, and godliness. It’s easy for well-blessed Christians to slide into a place of spiritual apathy or an unconscious desire for more and more when all their needs are supplied and they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet. Because of all this, those who are critical of Christians have been well-supplied with ammunition to find fault with us.

But the calling to the Christian church, whether wealthy or poor, still is to preach the gospel to those we encounter on the roads of life. We are to share with others the good news about Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, or in what situation we may find them.

In some ways it can seem easy to preach a meaningful gospel to someone who is starving or homeless. We can offer them what they are needing at the moment and then tell them about Jesus and his love for them. I would imagine it must be much easier to see God’s love in a real way when you are in real trouble and someone offers you love and grace in the midst of it.

It also seems to be much more difficult to preach the gospel and be heard by those who really have no need for God in their lives. When a person is reasonably content with their life, and is able to handle everything they face day by day, God is extraneous to them. In their lives, he really serves no purpose except perhaps to limit them in some way. Or their faith may just be something that is part of their family heritage and really has no personal impact upon their lives.

This is why as I see the material abundance in this country and encounter financially successful people in every walk of life, the question arises in my mind: How in the world do you share the gospel with people who feel no need for it? What do you offer to those who believe they already have all they need or can earn enough to supply it themselves? What if these people are much more generous to the needy and poor than those worshipping in your own church down the street? Why should they care about becoming a Christian when Jesus or those who represent him seem indifferent to them, as well as to those who are suffering or doing without?

The gospel we need to tell must offer something much deeper than just relief from suffering or freedom from sin. The gospel must touch at the core of our humanity. We need to help people personally encounter in Jesus Christ the amazing God who created us and sustains us and who calls us into relationship with himself.

The gospel we offer has great power. It is such good news! In Jesus Christ, we are given the real presence of God in our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and raising us to new life, a life which is at this moment hidden with Christ in God and offered to us right now in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely, there is a deep hunger hidden somewhere in the human heart, longing to hear this good news, no matter how distracted a person may be by their abundance and blessings.

And so, we pray. We serve. We love. We pray and care for each and every person we meet, helping them see God is offering them the same gift which was given to us. And we trust in God’s good time, he will enable them to encounter the truth of their need for him, and the wonder of his precious gift of life in Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

Abba, thank you for your faithful love and for all the abundant blessings we receive from you. Thank you for the gift of both prosperity and poverty, for in the midst of each of these we can come to know you and learn to trust you more. May we always be on guard against greed and indifference, and freely share with others all you have provided for us, through Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.’” Luke 12:15 NASB

“For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:3-8 NASB

The Curses and The Ten Commandments

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by Linda Rex

Lately I’ve been starting out my day reading a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament. Today I was reading Chapter 27 in the book of Deuteronomy. Here Moses instructed the people about something they were to do when they entered the Promised Land. They were to divide the people up, with six tribes standing on Mount Gerizim and six tribes standing on Mount Ebal. Then the Levites were to recite curses and all the people were to respond with “Amen” to each curse.

Something occurred to me as I was reading this. It was something I never played close attention to when I read it before. And it really bugged me—enough that I had to stop and think seriously about it for a while.

If I were to ask you what many traditional and fundamentalist Christians have posted in their house or office somewhere, what would you say? I was in someone’s office the other day, and there it was, in bold print, so everyone who came in couldn’t miss it. Many Christians insist that the Ten Commandments are the trademark measurement of goodness and badness and what matters most to God in our relationship with him. So they post them where they and others can see them.

That being the case, I was stunned to see that nowhere in this list of sins these curses were for, were the Ten Commandments specifically listed. There wasn’t mention of a single commandment in relation to God and how the people were to relate to him. The others were related to some of the other six commandments, but they didn’t at all appear in the form you would see in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5 where the Ten Commandments are listed.

If the Ten Commandments were so important for the people to be keeping, why weren’t they listed with the curses? And I found that it is interesting in the same respect that each of these things listed had to do with proper relationships between people, both in the family and in the community. The last one in the list was a summary statement pronouncing a curse on anyone who did not uphold the words of the law.

Then a blessing is pronounced in Chapter 28 and it has everything to do with Israel’s relationship with God and how they participated in their covenant of love with him. The blessings and cursings described in Chapter 28 are related to the way Israel behaved in their relationship with God and whether or not they lived in communion with him as the law instructed them to. The blessings and curses had to do with whether or not Israel as a nation trusted in God alone and was faithful to their covenant relationship with him.

In both of these cases, the Ten Commandments was supplanted to some extent, or shall I say, surpassed by, the greater law of covenant love. Our relationships with God and with each other are what really matter in the end. The consequence of living for ourselves and not living in communion and godly love with one another and God is well described in this listing of curses. And the blessings that come with living in the communion of the Holy Spirit with one another is clear to see as well. It explains why Jesus, when asked, said the most important commandment is to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and being, and the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Instead of seeing the law as a list of do’s and don’t’s that separate good people from bad people, we can see the law as an expression of what it looks like to live in loving relationship with God and each other. The simplicity of this is expressed in the NASB when it says that the people were to confirm the words of the law by the way in which they lived. We confirm our love relationship with God and each other by the way we treat God and each other, and by what goes on in our hearts and minds in each moment of each day as we interact with the world around us.

Going on beyond this, we are told by the Apostle Paul that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us…” (Gal. 3:13) So even our shortcomings in living out a relationship of love with God and each other are covered by our Savior. The prophetic word of Isaiah to Israel was that God would author a new covenant in which he said he would “put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer. 31:33). This is reflected on by the author of Hebrews, who explains the gift of God is the internal eternal Law of God, Jesus Christ, who has joined himself with humanity and who stands in our place as both the Lawgiver and the Lawkeeper.

Now I’m not against people posting the Ten Commandments places as a reminder of how to treat God and each other. That can be a good thing. But it is easy to hold to this external expression of goodness and badness by which we judge one another and to totally miss the mystery of godliness—Christ in us, the hope of glory. It is Christ who defines us, who lives his life in us and through us by his Holy Spirit. It is God who plants within us the heart, soul and mind to love him and each other from the core of our being with his own very own love, planted within us through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.

How often I have encountered people who are very busy with the externals of Christianity, but who are also vindictive, hateful, spiteful and even cruel—because the law has become to them a dividing point between goodness and badness between them and other people, and they have missed the One who gives Life and offers us an intimate relationship with himself through Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

They are eating of the tree of good and evil and have missed entirely the tree of life offered us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. This seems to me to be the worst possible thing that could happen to anyone. And all these curses described in Deuteronomy cannot begin to describe what it’s like to live out one’s life in rejection of the One who is our life, our love, our obedience, our peace. That seems to me to describe in many ways what a personal hell looks like.

Dearest God, Thank you for giving us your Son so that we can live in loving relationship with you and each other. Thank you for your precious Spirit who opens our eyes and minds and hearts to see Jesus Christ living within, and who makes us receptive to the Truth and Life he is. Grant us the grace to seek Life in Jesus Christ instead of seeking to be our own gods and to live independently of you and each other. We trust you will finish your work in our hearts, minds and lives, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

“’Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Deut. 27:26 NASB

“Jesus answered, ‘The foremost is, “HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.” The second is this, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” Mark 12:29–31 NASB