Christian life

Pending Judgment—Part V

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By Linda Rex

Last weekend I was in Grove City, Ohio for a Together in Christ Summit. During my time there we visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati where we looked at exhibits which talked about the history of slavery here in America, as well as the reality of slavery today in countries around the world. We took some tests on implicit bias, discovering our own hidden proclivities towards prejudice. And we had some excellent discussions on what we as followers of Jesus Christ can do to open up safe spaces in which both victim and perpetrator may find healing and wholeness.

The call we all felt, I believe, was to participate more fully in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world with regards to these issues. We are called, as God’s redeemed children, to be reconciled to God as he has reconciled himself with us in his Son Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We participate in Jesus’ work of reconciliation as we, as forgiven and redeemed children, through repentance and forgiveness are by faith in Christ reconciled with God and one another.

Parts of the exhibits were difficult to look at, due to the awfulness of the way people over the millennia have been treated by their fellow humans. The most painful for me to see were the exhibits on the third floor which were dedicated to modern slavery. One would think that by now human beings would have learned something from all we have experienced as time has passed. But greed is still greed, and economic success and lucrative production based on the suffering of certain people groups still has the power to hold people in its grasp. And whether I like it or not, there are ways in which I participate in this suffering without even realizing it.

As I stepped into the restored building which was once used as a slave pen, I felt the presence of those who had been held against their will, and grieved. It seems that throughout history, people have preyed on other people—the lost and the least victimized, used, and discarded by others who were in reality their brothers and sisters in Christ. What is Abba’s heart about all this?

We can learn something about this in the story of his chosen people, Israel, when God heard their cry in the land of Egypt where they were enslaved. The only reason this group of people was in Egypt was because their forefather Joseph had, by God’s intervention, saved Egypt from certain disaster during a famine (Gen. 41-46). At that point, they were important people in Egypt due to Joseph’s position as the ruler second only to Pharoah himself. But as time passed and circumstances changed, they became enslaved to the Egyptians.

There is a way in which humans begin to view one another which leads to such things happening. In Exodus 1, we read how the Egyptians began to fear the Israelites, so they set harsh taskmasters over them. Ironically, the more they were oppressed, the more the Israelites grew in numbers. In response, the king of Egypt demanded that their sons be killed as they were born, while their daughters could be saved (note the gender inequality). But the midwives and mothers managed to find a way to avoid doing this, because their fear of God was greater than their fear of the king.

But when one group of people subjugates another, the oppression merely grows worse, and this is what happened in the land of Egypt. The government began legislating oppression, moving the enslavement of this people group deeper into the nation’s consciousness. One of the tragedies of slavery in America is how we, a democratic people, voted into place such things as considering a slave to only be 3/5 of a person and fleeing slaves having to be returned to their owners, no matter the state of the circumstance involved. Written into the laws of various states in this nation were statements about the status of people based upon the color of their skin, whether they were born to a white man or a white woman, or if they married someone who was a slave.

This mentality of over/under, of greater than/less than, isn’t unique to America, nor to the people of ancient Egypt. This is a way of thinking and believing which arises out of our broken humanity. We set ourselves against one another, being blinded by fear, greed, and simply the lies we believe about God and each other.

Going back to the story of the Israelites in slavery, we find that God had a purpose for this particular people. They had a unique relationship with God, not because of anything they had done, but because of what their forefather had done when he had trusted in the goodness and mercy of his God, believing the promises made to him that one day he would be the father of many nations (Gen. 17:4). God had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and these enslaved people were the chosen ones, beloved of Abba, the ones through whom the Savior of the world would come.

What the Pharoah of Egypt and his people did not realize was that they were viewing the Israelites through a false lens. Their paradigm was inaccurate and needed to be changed. They worshipped a variety of gods, none of which had anything to do with the One who created and sustained all things. The ruler of this people, no doubt, was used to being treated as though he were divine, and expected that his word was law, with no other law being superior to his. I imagine that submission was a very foreign concept to this Pharoah and that he saw himself as being above any law or authority other than his own.

When Moses brought the word of God to Pharoah, telling him to let Abba’s people go free, this began a conflict between God and the king which affected the two nations profoundly. At first, Moses’ efforts only resulted in harder bondage and greater suffering. But God told him:

“‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them. I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the Lord.’” (Gen. 6:2-8 NASB)

God’s purpose from the beginning was to bring us all into relationship with himself, to truly know him as we are known by him. He also purposed to redeem all humanity, freeing us from our slavery to sin and to death. This meant his interaction with the nation of Egypt via the Pharoah would involve a revelation of his being as the One God, the Lord, who is the Redeemer of his people. Unfortunately, Pharoah’s resistance to this revelation would mean suffering and death for many of his people, including his very own firstborn son.

God’s judgments on Egypt were not meant to harm, but were meant to free his people and to reveal his power, glory, and goodness. They were based in his covenant love and his compassion for his people who were being oppressed. When God opposed and resisted the stubborn pride and arrogance of Pharoah, there were consequences and many suffered as a result. The plagues which affected the Egyptians were a direct attack upon the false gods they trusted in and were meant to teach them the difference between idols and the true God so they could come to know God for who he really was. The resistance of Pharoah against God provided a venue in which the Lord revealed his covenant love and grace toward the nation of Israel through whom one day the Deliverer would come who would deliver all nations from evil, sin, and death.

The cost of resistance to the purposes and ways of our loving God is often a price we don’t want to pay, but we do it all the time. Slavery in America was insidious and awful. The cost of eradicating it was tremendous and included suffering and death for many people. And the sad thing is, we are still fighting this battle even today. Suffering and death are the result of resisting the love and grace of our good God, and refusing to live in the truth of who we are as those made in his image. We are meant to live in oneness in which we, though unique in our persons and relations, are equals. This is our identity—and when we don’t live in the truth of this in our relationships with one another, there are painful, awful consequences which permeate all of life.

In Christ, God has reconciled each and every person with himself, and is calling each and every one into relationship with himself by the Spirit. He calls us by his precious Spirit to live together in the oneness we were created for and redeemed by Christ to share in. Christ revealed Abba’s heart as he ministered to and embraced the lost and the least of these when he came to share in our humanity. In the sending of his Spirit, he breathes out on each of us the new spirit of unity and oneness we were created for. May we open our hearts and minds and willingly embrace our new humanity, beginning to live and walk in this truth, no matter the cost.

Abba, thank you for offering us forgiveness in your Son Jesus. Grant us repentance of all the ways in which we enslave and subjugate one another, and treat each other as if we were less than or worthless. Grant us the grace to forgive one another and to be reconciled to one another and you even as you have reconciled yourself to us in Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I make you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.’ So Moses and Aaron did it; as the Lord commanded them, thus they did.” Exodus 7:1-6 NASB

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)

Giving Living

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By Linda Rex

It’s been an interesting journey as I have participated with Good News Fellowship in caring for the community in which we located here in Nashville. I’ve experienced a wide spectrum of responses to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed. Some were expected, while others were very unexpected.

As a Christian in today’s culture, I have found that people have unspoken expectations of me. Because I am a Christian, they seem to believe I will be, or should always be, nice, friendly, and well-behaved—and I inevitably disappoint them. Many people assume because I am a Christian that I am examining them and their lives in detail so I can have something to criticize or put down—and I’m not.

As a Christian, many people say, I must never make anyone feel bad or tell them that they are wrong and must change—after all, they are free to do whatever they want—it’s a free country, right? But sometimes the most loving thing I can do is to bring to their attention something hurtful or dangerous they are doing to harm themselves or others.

Some people seem to believe that since I am a Christian, I’m obligated to help anyone who comes to me and asks for help, no matter what the circumstance or situation. If someone is in need or struggling, it is my responsibility to help them and give them whatever it is they ask for, no matter the cost to myself or the inconvenience it may be for me to help them, or that it might not be in their best interests for me to help them in that way.

Yet God calls us to be, as followers of Christ, generous and giving. We are to share all the gifts God has given us with others. We are to be compassionate, understanding and loving. We should be positive examples of “giving living”—by nature being generous with all God has given us as our participation in Christ’s own generosity.

The fundamental thing is, we are not created as human beings to have a life centered around our own selves. Self-centered living destroys relationships. A self-centered person expects people to orbit around them as they slowly drain people’s energy and heart out like a black hole consumes the stars around it. When we center our lives and other people’s lives about our own needs, desires, and plans, we become more and more selfish, cold, and calculating.

Now, speaking for myself, I recognize there are times when I am self-centered and do not even realize this is what is going on. How disconcerting to walk away from a situation or conversation and realize I have made myself the center instead of keeping Christ and others at the center! These types of realizations keep each of us humble and dependent upon God’s grace and the patience of those near and dear to us.

If we want to be followers of Christ, though, we need to be attentive to these nudges of the Spirit and realign our center to where it should be—in Christ. It is important to be attentive to what the Spirit is saying in each moment and to follow Christ’s lead in our generosity because if we focus on ourselves, we will come up empty. God is the source of all things, including the capacity to be generous and giving, especially when we do not have the energy, resources, or heart to give.

A life centered in Christ is a life which draws its sustenance and well-being from the Source of all things, our Abba. When we are drawing our life from the Life-giver, we will find that our life and our being will be enriched and grow. If we are drawing our life from within ourselves or from the other people in our lives, we will eventually find ourselves frayed, worn-out, and exhausted, and our relationships in shambles.

This is also the case when it comes to our giving. Our generosity must have its roots in Jesus Christ himself. He is the one who came into our humanity, laid down his life, died our death, and rose again on our behalf and for our sake. He set aside the benefits and privileges of his divinity to live within our humanity, even though it cost him his human life. There is a fundamental generosity in the being of God which is rooted in God’s very nature as love.

First, and foremost, God in Christ is the center around which everything in this cosmos orbits and from which everything draws its life. Giving to others and being a giving person must begin with this center. Our center, the center of every part of our being and our life, is in Christ. It is not in ourselves or anyone else. What we do in our lives comes out of who we are, and who we are must be and is based in Christ as the perfect image-bearer of God himself, and the Source of all things.

So fundamentally at the core of our being, because we are made in our Generous and Giving God’s image to reflect his likeness, we are generous and giving people. Our lives, then, are centered around generosity because we are, in Christ by the Spirit, full of a heart of generosity. We recognize all we are and all we have has their source in God himself, and everything in this cosmos, including us and all we think we own, belongs to him.

This true humility with regards to our existence enables us to be open-handed and free with all we have been given since we realize it all came to us as a gift. Even if we worked hard to earn our resources, we recognize and admit that even the ability to earn a living came from the One who gave us the opportunity and capacity to do the work we are doing. There is no holding back what we have been given when we are in the position to help another who is in need or to further the work God is doing in this world to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

But this doesn’t automatically mean we give to every person in every situation without attention to the wisdom of doing so. Yes, we need to be putting our resources to work to further God’s agenda in the world and to spread his gospel. Yes, we should always be generous and giving to those in need. But sometimes the better gift is not to give at all, but to enable that person to trust God to meet their needs in another way.

Maybe we are hindering God’s work in their lives by just giving them cash when we need to be giving them our time and attention instead. Perhaps rather than just giving them our resources, we should be helping them learn what is needed so they can provide them for themselves. These are complicated issues which must be guided by the Word of God and the Spirit, and wisdom.

There is plenty in this world but too often we do not see our plenty as a resource to accomplish Jesus’ mission in this world or to provide for others so they might have what we have. Granted, we’re not all able to share—some of us are the needy as well. But even the needy have something to offer others. We all can share and give, when we draw upon the infinite resources of our generous and giving God, recognizing whatever we have has been given to us as a gift from him to share with others. This is the perichoretic life.

Dear Abba, thank you for being so generous with us, giving us all we need for life and godliness, and for giving us your very best in your Son and in your Spirit. Grant us the grace as you give us the resources to always be generous with others and share diligently in your ministry to this broken and hurting world. In your Name, amen.

“But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also…. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich…. For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality—at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality;…” 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-14 NASB

Seeds and Flowers, and Maturing in Christ

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By Linda Rex

Outside the house next to our patio door sit two flower pots. Last summer we moved some tiger lilies out of a flowerbed and into these pots because the local mole had decided he had a hankering for flower bulbs and managed to eliminate most of them we had planted earlier in the year.

Even though we planted the tiger lily bulbs in the flowerpots, we assumed they were too far gone to even come up. But this spring they began to grow and after quite some time they put on buds. We were delighted when the bright orange blossoms opened fully—they are quite stunning when in full bloom.

In comparison with a tiger lily, the bloom of an avocado tree is quite tiny and unimpressive. If one were to look at an avocado flower, one would have to get up really close in order to even see it. It has six tiny white or green petals surrounding an intricate white and yellow center. And yet, when the flower has done its work properly, it produces a seed the size of a walnut enclosed within a thick layer which we consume as fruit. The entire avocado can be bigger than the size of a human fist—a far cry from the tiny flower it came from.

The size and beauty of a flower may be large and glorious, but this is not what determines what type of fruit it produces. Nor does it determine whether or not it produces fruit which matures in such a way as to produce seeds. Some flowers produce fruit which is seedless—a natural process which botanists and producers have taken advantage of in order to provide us with such produce as seedless grapes and seedless watermelons.

Plants come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the “fruit”—this word includes nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Fruit from a plant may mature beyond the state any of us would be willing to consume, but for many plants, this is what is necessary for the seed to fully ripen so when it is put in the ground it will produce a new plant. We often consume what is produced before it is fully mature—corn on the cob is a good example of this. In order to plant corn, the corn kernel has to ripen completely and then dry—only then is it mature enough to be used as seed for planting. But dried corn kernels are quite hard to chew and they’re not very tasty either.

A lot of what I’ve shared here is common knowledge for a farmer, botanist, or master gardener. They understand the process by which a plant reproduces and how to work with seeds, plants, and flowers to produce the best crop possible. It is interesting that Jesus, our Master Gardener, often used the process of planting, growing, and harvesting crops in order to talk about himself and the kingdom of God.

In one parable, Jesus used seed to represent the Word of God. He was explaining the different ways in which the Word of God was planted and the results of each scenario:

“Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” Luke 8:11-15 NASB

It seems that the problem with producing quality fruit lies not with the seed, but with the soil it lands on. The Word of God always produces a result—it is fruitful—there’s no doubt about that. But the ground which receives the seed can be harsh and unreceptive, or provide little room for the roots to grow, or be so filled with weeds that a new plant can’t grow and thrive.

If we were to consider this parable for a bit, we might see that the point of putting the seed in the ground is not just to have pretty flowers. Flowerbeds are lovely and I personally enjoy a garden filled with colorful blooms. But this was not the point of this parable—the focus is on the seed and what the seed was to produce—more seed. This means each seed needs to produce a plant which will grow to the place it flowers, it produces fruit, and the fruit matures to the point that it produces seed.

Seeds come in all shapes and sizes, and travel all over by a variety of means. Seeds are not meant to stay on the plant, but to be spread to new places. We experience the reality of this when we find oak trees growing in our pansy bed or an apple tree coming up in the vegetable garden.

When we hear the Word of God—the good news of God’s love for us expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ, it is meant to take root in our hearts by faith. The Word of God, the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, works transform our hearts and lives. We open ourselves up to the work of the Spirit in our walk of faith and begin to mature as followers of Jesus Christ. Our lives begin to reflect the Word of God at work within us. Like beautiful blossoms on a plant, we glow with the glory God created us to bear—the image of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This flowering is not the end of the story though. We are meant to go even farther and mature into seed-bearing plants. Our lives and words are to be a testimony to Christ. In other words, the life-giving Word is carried to new places and planted in new ground—new hearts—because we have become mature seed-bearing plants. Jesus said as we go, we are to make disciples. Making disciples, sharing the Word of God with others, is to be a natural by-product of our spiritual growing up in Christ.

The environment in which the Word of God exists within us is critical in this process. Do we allow ourselves to be deceived by a word other than that which given to us in Jesus Christ? Do we allow ourselves to be tempted by other things which supplant the Word of God? Do we allow ourselves to be so absorbed in the cares and pleasures of this life that we suffocate the Word of God? All of these are ways in which we disrupt or hinder the process of spiritual growth God meant for us to participate in.

The healthier alternative is to receive the Word with an “honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” The Word of God sinks deep roots in the soil of our heart as we practice spiritual disciplines which open us up to the work of the Spirit within us. The Word of God can transform our lives and hearts as we obey the Spirit’s inner prompting to put away our idols and distractions and focus wholly on Christ. We make space for God to work by making sure we are not preoccupied with the cares and pleasures of this life.

And we are not satisfied with just the external trappings of spiritual growth. It’s easy to look as though we are a stunning example of spiritual maturity. But the proof is when what God has done and is doing in us is duplicated in the lives of those around us. When the Word of God begins spreading into the hearts and lives of those around us, then we know we are being fruitful, and that God’s Word is living and active, taking root in many new hearts and lives.

Thank you, Lord, for planting your Word in our hearts. By faith, may we allow your Word to grow and develop, transforming our hearts and lives in such a way that your Word may be planted anew in others hearts and lives as well. May we be productive plants for your glory, through Jesus our Lord and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

“As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Luke 8:14 NRSV

Living Beyond the Ordinary

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By Linda Rex

Ordinary Time
Last Sunday at Good News Fellowship we celebrated Trinity Sunday, with an emphasis on the way God revealed himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through our Lord Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We were reminded of the beauty of the Trinitarian perichoretic life—the divine dance—we were all created for and welcomed into by God’s grace and love.

Trinity Sunday is in some ways a highlight on the Christian calendar, as though all which has gone before has led us to this place of revelation and understanding. Rather than being just a mystery we can only gaze upon in amazed wonder, the Trinity is the place where we exist—we are held in Christ, in the midst of the love and life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Our ordinary life is no longer just ordinary. It is a life swept up into the very Being of God.

Our lives as human beings—ordinary or not—are full of ups and downs, joys and sorrows. Sometimes we struggle just to make it through another day. Other times it seems we are on the top of the world. Life can be pleasant and easily enjoyed, or it may be excruciatingly painful and unbearable.

But whatever it is for us at the moment, we can know and believe this one thing—we are loved. We are never alone and forgotten. The psalmist wrote:

O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O LORD, You know it all. You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me. (Psalm 138:1-10 NASB)

No matter where we are or what we are doing, we live every moment in God’s presence. But more than that, God brought us even closer in his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus took on our humanity and lived the very existence you and I live. He experienced life in this physical body, with all its frailty, in a world full of evil and struggle. God came near in Jesus Christ. God, in Jesus Christ, became God with us, Immanuel.

In Christ, God laid himself open for us as human beings to do with him however we wished. It is a sad commentary on us as human beings that when God came to dwell in human flesh, we crucified him. But that’s the very reason he came.

God’s purpose in Jesus Christ was to get down to the bottom of our broken humanity, down into the depths to which evil could go, and to turn evil, sin, and death on its head. He took our twisted humanity and untwisted it. He allowed us to do as we wished to him, so he could cure us of our bent toward evil and sin.

It was not enough that God in Jesus would allow us to do crucify him. He had even more in mind for us than just dying for us—that was not the end. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus was just the next step in what God had in mind for our humanity. For when Jesus ascended into the presence of the Father, he requested on our behalf that his Father would send the Holy Spirit. And Abba did send the Spirit.

The sending of the Spirit was critical. For not only is God present by the Spirit to all creation, he is also present through Jesus within you and me. By the Spirit, as we trust in Jesus Christ and what he has done in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God comes to dwell in our very hearts. We are forever joined through Christ in union with God, and by faith, we can participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with his Father through the Holy Spirit. We are swept up into the intimate relations between the Abba and Jesus in the Spirit as we trust in Christ.

Now, by the Spirit, we live our ordinary lives in an extraordinary way—in union and communion with the God who created us and called us into life with him. We live our everyday lives in real companionship with Jesus in the Spirit, with God’s ever-present whisper to our heart telling us which direction to go, and how best to love and serve God and others. By the Spirit, the Word of God comes alive and begins to reveal Jesus the living Word to us, opening us up to the transforming work of the Spirit in new and deeper ways.

As we follow Christ and respond to the call of the Spirit upon our hearts and lives, we begin to change. And as we begin to change, the world around us begins to change. The Spirit leads us down new paths of creativity, compassion, and service. We are so grateful and joyful in our extraordinary living, we want to share it with others—and so we participate with Jesus in welcoming others into Abba’s loving embrace. This is the Trinitarian life we are included in and were created for.

The love of God is so great, he will not allow anything to stand in the way of his completion of this amazing creative work. God is sharing his life and his love with those he created. In spite of our failures, God will finish what he has begun—we have his Word on this.

Thank you, Abba, for all you have done to include us in your life and love. Thank you for the gift of your Son Jesus Christ, and for the precious outpouring of your Holy Spirit. Grant us the grace to humble ourselves to receive with gratitude your precious gifts. We give you praise and thanksgiving through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, ‘For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 9:35-39 NASB

Steeped in God’s Love

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By Linda Rex

Moving into “Proper” Time
One of the simple pleasures of life I enjoy is a nice cup of tea. I like different types of teas, and lately have had to limit myself pretty much to caffeine-free teas. During the summer, I fill up the sun tea jar with water and tea bags and set it outside to steep. Once the tea is made, I am able to enjoy iced tea—emphasis on the “iced” part of the drink.

Steeping tea is an interesting process. Putting tea bags in very hot water accelerates the process of steeping, while placing tea bags in cold water and placing them in the hot sun presupposes it will take awhile for the tea to steep. On cooler days, it takes most of the afternoon for the tea to penetrate the water, while on a hot Tennessee summer day, it only takes a couple hours.

Now that we have attended to the events of Pentecost, we move on the Christian calendar into what the lectionary calls “Proper” time. The time between Trinity Sunday and Thanksgiving Day is called “ordinary time.” During ordinary time we live out our Christian faith and the meaning of Christ’s resurrection in ordinary life. What we have learned and have come to believe about Jesus in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension now become a part of our everyday existence.

This morning I was struck by the Message Bible translation of Matthew 6:33: “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. …” In my mind I can see a picture of you and me being the sun tea jar—vessels for God’s presence. We have been filled with the water of the Spirit, and the tea bags are present, full of God’s very life within us—Christ dwells in our hearts by faith. Now we are set in the sun of God’s loving presence each and every moment of our lives. What will come out of this?

I’m sure there are times when God allows the process of steeping to be accelerated. All it takes is a horrific or difficult event in our lives to put the heat on. The Spirit is always at work either way, and Jesus is always present in every moment—whether difficult or joyful. It is his indwelling presence which makes a profound difference in how we handle the events of our lives. Trusting him and allowing his life to penetrate fully our inner being is the process of steeping—and this is what we were created for.

All of life now is to be lived as we are led by Christ and filled with the Spirit in the loving presence of Abba. This is the “God-reality” of our existence. The “God-initiative” of our life is that Abba loves you and me. Christ is Lord, and he calls the shots—but always in love, looking out for our best interests and caring about our every concern and need. We listen to him and follow him wherever he leads us by his Spirit. There is a direction to our lives now—and it’s in devotion to him, not to our dead-in-Christ passions and lusts.

As we go through life, we are not to be anxious about anything, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6 NASB) We acknowledge our dependency upon God and allow him to be who he is—our Provider and Sustainer, the One who cares for us. This is the “God-provisions” of our existence: we understand everything comes from his loving hand, and so we live in humble gratitude each and every moment.

In this way, we are “steeping our life” in the One who is our Life, Jesus Christ, and we are drinking in of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus. We are living day by day in the presence of Abba, growing in our love for him as we embrace more and more the truth of our being—who we are as his beloved adopted children, made in his image, after his likeness, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

It’s important to note the role the jar plays in the steeping of the sun tea. It’s not really a passive role, but neither is it the controlling role in this whole scenario. It many ways the jar is merely a “receptacle”—notice the similarity to the word “receptive.” Receptive is what we are asked by God to be—to receive the abundant love of God, the gift of that love expressed to us in Christ. God says to us: Receive the indwelling presence of God in Christ—the Holy Spirit—and allow him to have his way in you. Allow the Spirit to penetrate your entire existence so you are steeped completely in God’s love.

The jar is made of clear glass, enabling the sun to penetrate through the walls of the container, to interact with the water and the tea. Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit are all apart of the process of transformation, and work together to take what was and to transform it into something new. Our water-filled jar becomes a jar filled with a delicious drink which can be poured out to bless others.

We are not meant to have this transformation in our life only for ourselves. Part of the blessing of ordinary time is the opportunity to begin to see how we can share the life God has given us with others. We have received new life—and as we embrace God’s heart of love and grace, we can begin to share it with others, helping them to see the God-reality, God-initiative, and God-provisions are for them as well.

The sun tea jar sits on the table in the bright sunshine, not anxious or worried about making sure it gets the tea made properly. There is a restfulness about the entire process. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.” He reassures us—he has it all under control. It’s not about our perfect performance, but solely about Christ by the Spirit completing what Abba has begun in us. He calls us merely to trust him, to trust the process, and to trust in the unending love of Abba—for he will finish what he has begun.

Thank you, Abba, for your perfect and unending love. Thank you that it’s not about us and how well we perform, but about what you have done and are doing even now through your Son Jesus Christ and your Blessed Spirit. We open ourselves to your perfect work. May we live each day in the truth of our existence and allow ourselves to be filled with the fullness of your love and life. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33 NASB

“Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.” Matthew 6:33 MSG

Fully Present and Filled

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By Linda Rex

Pentecost
I was sitting in a restaurant the other day with my family. Looking around the restaurant, I noticed a sight which is quite commonplace today—everyone at the table was looking at their smart phone. I was a little amused, because just a few minutes before that, I had caught myself looking at mine when I really didn’t need to.

It can be a real challenge to stay present in the moment with family, friends, and the task at hand, because there are so many distractions. Believe me—I love my smart phone. But I have had to learn to limit its use, or I will not be present to what is going on right in front of me and will miss valuable moments in my relationships and home life.

I think there are things we can learn about our relationship with God from this. Years ago, I believed the Holy Spirit was the substance God was made up of, that the Spirit was a force or power, but definitely not a Person. To see the Spirit as an object or force meant I was always having to ask God for more of the Spirit. Even though, as I believed then, I had been given the Spirit at baptism and God wouldn’t take the Spirit away, I was still in danger of Spirit starvation.

A song I fell in love with in those days was “More Love, More Power.”(1) This is a great song which was very inspiring to sing. But I began to see that it began with a false paradigm. This paradigm said—I don’t have enough love or power from God—I am starving spiritually. I only have a little bit of God’s power, so I have got to have more or I’m in real trouble. I desperately need God to give me more or I can’t be good enough (so I will be worthy of God’s love and attention or be a good person).

When Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit, though, he did not seem to use this type of terminology. He spoke of the Holy Spirit as being a Person like himself (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13) Yes, he spoke about the Spirit as being given or poured out. Jesus said the disciples would be baptized with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. But Christ made it quite clear that the Holy Spirit was not just a power or force—he was a Person who would not speak on his own initiative but according to the Father’s will, guide them into all truth, and testify to them about Jesus.

A person such as the Holy Spirit cannot be divided up without destroying the Person in the process. The Spirit isn’t hacked up into pieces to be given a little here and a little there. At Pentecost, the apostle Peter—filled with the Spirit—explained how the events which had happened that day (the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those gathered for prayer and worship) was a fulfillment of the prophetic word of Joel 2:28-29, which said the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh.

The Scriptures indicate God has become present by the Holy Spirit to each and every person. So why did Peter say in Acts 2:38, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?”

Apparently there is a difference in how the Holy Spirit came to the believers on Pentecost (and how he comes to us today) than when he came on the men and women of the Old Testament. Back then, it seems as if they would be overcome by the Spirit and find themselves prophesying or doing extraordinary things, apart from their decision to have the Spirit’s involvement in their lives. I don’t think Saul really wanted to go about prophesying, but Samuel told him the Spirit would make him do this as a sign he would be anointed king over Israel. God seemed to work more externally with human beings back then.

The significance of repentance and faith in Christ which precedes baptism is the key. The New Testament church was born out of the events which had occurred during Jesus’ time here on earth. Jesus, the Word of God in human flesh, had lived, died, and then been resurrected, ascending into the presence of God taking our common humanity with him. The perfected humanity of each human being lies hidden with Christ in God. Our response, what we do with these events and what we believe about who we are in Christ is critical.

Jesus told his disciples toward the end of his life here on earth, “A little while, and you will not see Me, and again a little while, and you will see Me” (John 16:19 NASB). He indicated that he had to leave so that the Spirit would come to them. And when the Spirit came, Christ would be coming to them. The Spirit of Christ would indwell human beings, and in this way, Abba himself would be present.

Through Christ and in the Spirit, God is now present and available to each and every person. Notice the important details—through Christ, and in the Spirit. If you or I, or any other person, does not believe Jesus Christ was who he was, of what use is the gift of the Spirit? True, the Spirit works in mighty ways in spite of us—there is plenty of evidence of this in the Old Testament. But God always protects and honors our human dignity. He does not force himself upon us. The Spirit protects our personhood and invites us into relationship with God through Jesus, creating in us—as we are willing—the faith to believe.

The Spirit testifies to who Jesus is, and who he is for us individually. This is important, because at some point we need to repent of all our false beliefs about Abba, Jesus, and ourselves. We need to turn away from ourselves and turn to Christ. To receive the Spirit is to open ourselves up completely to the presence of God, allowing him full reign in our being.

The apostle Paul wrote, “do not get drunk with wine, … but be filled with the Spirit.” Being drunk means our bloodstream is filled with a substance which is altering our decision-making capability and reducing our inhibitions, often in unhealthy ways. Being filled with the Spirit means being filled with the Person and Presence of God himself and being governed by his heart and mind, not our broken, fleshly heart and mind. It means we are led by his will, purposes and plans, not our selfish, self-willed desires and efforts. We live undistractedly, fully attentive to and participating with Christ as he dwells in us by the Spirit.

It’s not that God has to give us more of himself, but rather that we are fully surrendered and open to him. What part of us are we holding back from God? What doors in our heart and mind are closed to God? What do we refuse to give up or surrender to him? How are we resisting or quenching the Spirit?

Coming to see this moved me to change the words to that song so we could sing it at church: “Your Love, Your Power, I give you all my life…And I will worship you with all of my heart, and I will worship you with all of my mind, and I will worship you with all of my strength, for you are my Lord.” There is a call to surrender in the preaching of the gospel. This is why each generation is so resistant. None of us want to turn over the reins of our being to someone other than ourselves—most especially not God, because he has definite views on what it means to be a human being made in his image.

What part of our lives and beings are we unwilling to surrender to the God who made us and saved us by his grace? Will we give him all, turning away from ourselves and turning to Christ? In turning to Christ, then, we are baptized—showing we agree that yes, we did die with Christ, and we rose with Christ, and one day we will be fully Christ-like, when we see him in his glory. We are agreeing with the truth of our being and are open to the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, having received the gift God has given us of his indwelling Presence.

Each moment of our lives, then, is spent in the indwelling Presence of God. Being baptized in the Spirit means we are swimming in the Triune life and love—in the midst of the Father, Son, and Spirit—participating in what they are doing in this world.

We can focus on our distractions—and there are plenty of them—or we can be present to the One who is present to us by the Spirit. Paul says to keep our hearts and minds on the things of heaven, not on the things of earth—meaning, be present to God and his Presence rather than the things of the flesh (Col. 3:1-4). This is what we were created for, and how we are meant to live—in the life and love of Abba and Jesus in the Spirit, forever.

Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Beloved Son, and for the gift of your precious Spirit. Thank you for the gift of your indwelling Presence, and for inviting us into relationship with yourself. Grant us the grace to welcome and surrender to the gift of your Being through Jesus and by your Spirit, Amen.

“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Eph. 5:18 NASB

(1) “Worship” album, Michael W. Smith (2001)