Christian life

Thankful for Gratitude

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By Linda Rex

Thanksgiving Day did not go as I had planned. I worked really hard on Wednesday preparing food for a large number of people who had signed up to have Thanksgiving Day dinner with me at the church. My outreach partner Pat worked equally hard to have everything ready for our guests. One of the guests, Sarena, had struggled to prepare some items to bring, burning herself in the process of making it. Thursday noon finally arrived, though, and we were prepared. It was going to be a great feast!

And we waited. A few people came. We talked, laughed, and finally, about an hour after the announced time and with less than half our expected guests, we decided to start eating. The food turned out okay, I thought. And the company was pleasant. The music made us want to dance. There were a few bumps and bruises, but for the most part, it was a great meal. But we regretted we could not share it with more people.

I thought about this yesterday and today, and it brought to mind the story Jesus told of the banquet invitations which were sent out but not responded to, and how they even gathered people from the streets nearby to fill the seats. Those who came and sat at the table were the ones who were able to participate in the joy of the celebration, not the ones who didn’t show up.

But how often in life have I been the one who didn’t show up? What about the time my child was to receive a special award in a ceremony at school and I had to be at work? And the time when my friend celebrated a special occasion and I completely forgot about it?

And I have to admit that there have been times in my life where I believed that God should have showed up and didn’t. I may have expected him to “show up”, and I may have wanted him to do something specific to demonstrate to me than indeed he was present, but God didn’t seem to think that that was something he needed to do at the time or that was in my best interests—and that was hard to take.

But we can focus so hard on what wasn’t or isn’t that we miss what was and is. Perhaps not as many people showed up as said that they would, but those who did had a good time, and enjoyed a festive meal with us. Yes, it may have been disappointing to have done all that work and not have things turn out as expected, but on the other hand, it was a joyful celebration of God’s many blessings. We had a good time, for the most part, ate some excellent food, I thought, and had some real good meaningful conversations as well as humor and laughter.

Like I said—it’s easy to focus on what didn’t happen, who wasn’t there, and not on the reality that God was present, and that relationships were encouraged and strengthened, and that people experienced friendship, fellowship, and caring. The ability to stand back and find gratitude in such situations comes as a gift from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us a heart of gratitude—Jesus’ thankful heart. That we can move beyond our regrets to gratitude for the pleasant gathering and good food, is God’s gift to us through Jesus in the Spirit.

I hope you all had a very lovely Thanksgiving Day, and were able to enjoy time with friends and family, renewing relationships and giving thanks to God for all his abundant blessings. As we come to the end of this calendar year and tomorrow celebrate Christ the King Sunday, may we give thanks to our Abba for giving us his Son and his Spirit, and for raising Christ victoriously from the grave to reign forever over all he has made. We are so very blessed to share in that victorious reign in Christ by the Spirit. May he rule in our hearts today and forever, filling us forever with his heart of gratitude.

Dear Abba, thanks. Thanks for each and every thing. Thanks for all the dear friends and family we have in our lives to love us and to celebrate with us. Thanks for the abundance and benefits you provided. Apart from you, we have nothing—so we praise you now and forever, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’” NASB

Freedom to Lead

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By Linda Rex

The other day I stood in a line of about fifty people waiting for an opportunity to cast my vote. The line moved rather slowly, and by the time I got to the voting machine, there were another fifty people behind me. I thought it was pretty cool that I could stand in line with people of all different walks of life, of a different race and culture than myself, and express my opinion via the vote as to who should be elected to office.

I realize there are a lot of dynamics in the political arena I am unaware of. And I realize that just casting a vote doesn’t guarantee a particular person will get elected. My trust is not placed completely in the person I am voting for—I realize their human frailty. What I do trust in is the reality that no one gets into political office apart from God’s gracious permission. I cling to the Word which says, “… there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”

This is hard to get my mind around sometimes though. We elect people into office in this country—or at least we go through the motions of an election to put people into power. If we are responsible for putting someone into office, then why do Christians say God has established someone in a position of authority over us? What if they are corrupt or inept? Is it possible that sometimes God allows us to choose to elect someone who may not be honest and trustworthy or a good fit for the position? Apparently so.

A quick look back into history tells us that we as human beings have not been very good at choosing leaders for ourselves. I am reminded at this particular moment of how the nation of Germany began to move Hitler into power, thinking he was going to make their nation great again and save them from their poverty and help them rebuild. No doubt, there was some good at the beginning, but ultimately the power Hitler took to himself destroyed nations and killed people in a catastrophic way. And it took a world war and the loss of millions of lives to end it.

Going farther back, I am reminded of what is written in the book of Daniel. Daniel did something which is not easy to do—living as a God-fearing man in service to a pagan tyrant, a king who simply spoke the word and whatever he said became law. Daniel’s life is a good example of how to live in a godless society and still serve God, being faithful to the Word of God and prayer in spite of the restrictions in one’s work and everyday life.

Daniel was always taking risks you and I would find very difficult to take. He started out his service at the palace by refusing to eat the specialty foods and wines offered him and insisting on eating only simple foods and drinking water. This request he made could have caused him to simply be executed, but God gave him grace and favor.

The grace and favor of God seemed to cover every part of Daniel’s experience in Babylon. But what stands out most in my mind today considering our current political environment and the concerns people have expressed about the leadership of our country, both local and federal, is the story about Nebuchanezzar’s dream. God speaks to us in dreams often, yet we don’t usually in this society pay attention to what God is trying to tell us through our dreams.

Back then, there was an attentiveness to such things and the ones who normally attended to them were the wise men, the ones who were soothsayers, magicians, astrologers and conjurers. Nebuchanezzar had scores of them around to help him with his dreams, but one morning he woke up very disturbed by a dream, and none of these clever men were able to tell him what his dream meant. I’ve often wondered whether they were just afraid to tell him what the dream meant, because he might have gotten mad and killed them all (he had a habit of doing that).

In any case, he finally got around to telling Daniel about the dream. Daniel, who the king called Belteshazzar, was the chief of the magicians—interesting that he rose that far—and the king recognized in him “a spirit of the holy gods.” Nebuchadnezzar may have been as far from God as a person could get, and yet he was able to recognize the presence of God in Daniel in all he said and did. This says a lot about what kind of person Daniel was and how he lived his life.

Daniel hesitated at first to tell the king what his dream meant but the king insisted that he do so. Finally, Daniel explained that the dream was a message from God telling the king if he didn’t humble himself and give God the glory, and repent of his wickedness and tend to the poor and needy in his kingdom, God would see that he would lose his sanity and wander about as an insane beast for seven years, until he recognized God as Lord of his kingdom. It was a miracle the king didn’t assassinate Daniel on the spot.

There are historical records, I’ve been told, of a seven-year silence in the reign of Nebuchanezzar. The biblical record says about a year after his dream, he was arrogantly boasting about his position and power when an angel informed him the dream was now becoming a reality. Isn’t it interesting that today our Bible includes a story written by this king, telling us of what happens to a ruler when they presume to believe they are the only supreme authority in this world? He lost his mind temporarily for seven years, and then God restored the kingdom to him. After that, he was a little more respectful of God, though I doubt very much he ever stopped worshiping idols.

Whatever may happen in the political arena we can know God is ultimately in charge. Our voting and working as politicians and public servants need to be seen as our participation in what God is doing in this world. God is and always will be the One who is Lord of all, but he includes us in what he does as our sovereign Lord.

God allows people to hold power in this world, and he holds them accountable for everything they say and do, especially when it creates suffering and hardship for those who are powerless and needy. The purpose of being given responsibility and authority over others is not so we can become self-indulgent, self-important, and arrogant, but so we can help and serve others, humbling ourselves to make other people’s lives better and to enable them to know, love and serve God and one another in the true freedom which is ours in Christ.

Political power and authority are transient—they cannot be counted on. Some people hold office for decades in some countries, not because they are good leaders, but because they force their will on others. God’s purpose is not for us to force our will on others, but to enable others to follow God’s will, and to live freely in loving respect for one another. We have been given great freedom in this country to have a change after a few years to another leader. We should be grateful, and participate in the voting process as much as we can.

The book of Daniel tells us that one day God will establish a divine kingdom that will grow and fill the whole world, ultimately bringing low every other human government. This government was established in Jesus Christ in his first coming, and is at work today in the world by the Holy Spirit within the universal Church of believers. As we follow Christ and bravely live out and share the truth of God’s love in this world, we participate in and live in God’s kingdom, and enable others to experience its benefits within our world even today. May we be heavenly kingdom minded and Christ centered as we live, work, and serve in this earthly world today.

We, as believers in Christ, need to obey the apostolic admonition to pray for our leaders and for those who carry political power. Pray that we may continue to live quiet and peaceful lives as believers, and that we may be free to share the good news with our neighbors, friends, and families. Pray also that God will grant us as believers grace and favor with all those in authority, so that we can continue Christ’s mission in our community and in the nation as a whole.

If you, as Daniel did, have the gift of political leadership, then place that gift at Jesus’ feet and serve where he calls you to serve. Do the work of Christ fearlessly, trusting God will grant you grace and favor as you need it. We need leaders who are not afraid to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.” We need leaders who are willing to take the risks necessary to bring about change. It is a tough political arena right now, but what we need in that arena are spiritual warriors who are willing to take the hits for being honest, humble, and compassionate, and who are submissive to the will and purposes of our Lord Jesus Christ and his heavenly Abba. May the Spirit do a mighty work in this nation and bring many to humble service so we can see some real change that lasts.

Dear Abba, it is a blessing that you have made your Son Jesus Christ Lord of all. We are thankful you are still in charge, and that even when we fail to make good choices about our leaders, you still are at work in the midst of our failures. We ask you for godly men and women to lead us in this country who are equipped for servant leadership and who are filled with the Spirit. Lord, give our leaders wisdom, compassion, and humility—a spirit of service toward those they are responsible for. Grant us courage to confront and challenge our leaders when necessary, and the grace to respect and follow them as they follow you. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

“…this is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king: that you be driven away from mankind and your dwelling place be with the beasts of the field, and you be given grass to eat like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven; and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes. And in that it was commanded to leave the stump with the roots of the tree, your kingdom will be assured to you after you recognize that it is Heaven that rules. Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you: break away now from your sins by doing righteousness and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity.” Daniel 4:24-27 NASB

A Cry for Redemption

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By Linda Rex

This morning I was browsing social media as I was finishing up my morning exercise routine. I was touched by a friend’s post which described a very painful and difficult circumstance they were going through. My heart went out to them and I wished there was some way to help. But there wasn’t.

My go-to response, of course, is to pray. This can seem such a feeble response when often people need some real tangible assistance in difficult circumstances. But for those of us who do pray and count on prayer as our go-to response, this is actually the most powerful and effective thing we can do when encountering a life tragedy, struggle, or difficulty.

This week there was another mass shooting, this time in my home state of California. No doubt, there will be more cry for effective gun laws, and, which I think is more to the point, more focus on getting veterans the help they need when they are struggling with PTSD and other post-conflict issues. But all the laws we can write do not change or heal the human heart. We live in a society which seeks to regulate human conduct from without by laws or by social pressure, and to heal broken human beings with social programs and medication.

This is the struggle we have in our world today—a society in which each feels free to do whatever they want according to their conscience and desires, but often without concern for the others who share this world with them or for the creation either. I keep being brought back to the basic fundamental description of how we are to live as human beings—of what we have been created for. As made in the image of God, we are meant to live as unique yet equal individuals in a unity which reflects that of the Father, Son, and Spirit—created for this divine relationship with God and one another. Jesus described it as loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Our struggle to exist together in this world to day is due to our refusal to acknowledge there is an ultimate Source which defines our existence and which gives us direction for our lives. We want to have control over our existence and our decisions, and not allow anyone to infringe on our preferences or our space. Somehow we think that submitting ourselves to someone, most especially to God, limits us in some way, and deprives us of our ability to be all we can be.

In reality, our greatest struggle lies within ourselves. We are broken and wounded, and all these things affect how we handle life, and how we treat one another. When Jesus said that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, I believe he was pointing out our need to be fully integrated as human beings, with all of us being fully devoted to our Abba. He knew the human proclivity to create inner silos, where the good parts of us are separated from the bad parts of us, and where our inner divisions become a space for the evil one to enter and cause destruction and despair.

To be fully integrated within ourselves by necessity means that God needed to reform our humanity after his image—we had rejected our humanness as God had meant it to be. Jesus, when he walked on earth, lived in intimate relationship with his Abba. He said that he and his Father were one. Jesus lived fully focused on that relationship, seeking out his Abba in the midst of trouble and stress, and drawing upon his strength and power by the Spirit to deal with the issues he faced in his life.

In spite of how he was treated and the uniqueness of his personhood as the God/man, Jesus stayed fully integrated to the end. He, by the Spirit, held fast to the truth of who he was as the Son of God and the Son of Man. Jesus did not have a good side and a bad side, but was simply the Word of God in human flesh—the One who became sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God in him. He came to redeem our humanity and give us a new life by the Spirit which in him is fully integrated within itself and in relationship with God and others.

As I was reading the lectionary scriptures for Sunday, one of the passages from the book of Ruth popped out at me. We read in Ruth’s story that her mother-in-law Naomi, who lived for a time in Moab, had lost both her sons and her husband, and so sought to move back to her home town of Bethlehem to rebuild her life. Ruth, being a Moabitess, was considered a Gentile but she embraced Naomi and her faith, and went with her back to Bethlehem.

Ruth was in a very difficult position, but it seems that God kept his eye on her. She went to glean grain after the harvesters, which was what poor people did back then, and she ended up in the field of someone who was in her extended family, a relative named Boaz. In due time, Naomi told Ruth she should invoke the levirate law of that day and ask Boaz to redeem her property and by extension give her the children she did not have by her first husband so her property would stay in the family. So Ruth courageously did as her mother-in-law instructed, not knowing what the result would be.

Boaz’s reaction is interesting. When she appealed to him to exercise his right of redemption, he told her he couldn’t—there was someone closer who could. But he said he would see that this was done, either by himself, or by the other who was more closely related to her. Then he sent Ruth home. When Naomi heard how it went, she said, “Wait, my daughter, until you know how the matter turns out; for the man will not rest until he has settled it today.”

A lot of times we think and act as if God is indifferent to our suffering and our struggles. We may believe he shouldn’t be bothered with the little details of our lives, or that he’s not really willing to intervene in our difficult circumstances. When we lose dear ones, we often believe God doesn’t care about us any more—why else would he let them pass away? In reality, we need to see God as the One who will not rest until he has settled the matter today—immediately, as promptly as he possibly can. It may not be according to our time schedule, but in God’s time schedule, he is treating it as urgent, as needing his immediate attention.

Secondly, God is the one who has the right of redemption. He is as closely related to us as he could possibly get in the Person of Jesus Christ. He took on our humanity, reintegrated it with its Creator and within himself as God in human flesh, and took it with himself through death and resurrection, so we each could have new birth—a new life in him. God in Christ is to us a restorer of life and a sustainer in our youth and old age—no matter where we are in life, he is our Redeemer.

The cry I am hearing in the media today, social and otherwise, is for a redeemer. Humans such as political leaders often try to fill this role, and we temporarily give them our allegiance. But in reality, none can do what our Redeemer does—they cannot change or heal the human heart, nor can they transform people’s lives or give them divine redemption. There is no one like our God, who saves! We pray because we have a Redeemer who will not rest until he has healed, restored, and renewed. We pray because we know and trust he is faithful, gracious, and loving, and he will finish what he has begun in us.

Only God has the capacity and the heart to heal someone from the inside out. Only Jesus, the divine Physician, can change someone’s heart and desires into what they ought to be. Only the Spirit, our Comforter and our Peace, can work transformation in human beings, bringing them into Christlikeness.

Our participation in all of these things is to, like Ruth, place ourselves at Jesus’ feet and ask him to exercise his right of redemption on our behalf, to wait patiently for him to move in our circumstances and in our lives, and to embrace the relationship offered to us and to faithfully live within it for the remainder of our days. Our participation includes learning to live and walk in truth, to be integrated within ourselves so that we, in Jesus and by the Spirit, are loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves. We have every reason to hope—for he is ours and we are his, and he will be faithful to the end. This is why we turn to him, believing he will not fail us. And this is why we pray.

Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love, and for giving us your Son to redeem us. Thank you for sending your Spirit to renew, restore, and heal us—transforming us by your grace and love into the very image of your Son, and so to reflect your likeness. We desperately need a move of your Spirit in our world today. We need you to heal, restore and renew all this we have broken, and to transform human hearts by faith. We trust you will not rest until this is accomplished. Show us how we can participate with you in your mission, and to passionately do so as you lead us, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’” Ruth 4:14-15 NASB

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