comfort

Keeping Vigil in Illness and Death

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By Linda Rex

April 11, 2020, HOLY SATURDAY, HOLY WEEK—Looking at the graphic on the cdc.org website each day, I am moved by the way the numbers have climbed in the past couple days of those infected with COVID-19. The number of fatalities have increased as well, and it pains me to accept the reality this isn’t going to get much better for some time. It is challenging to keep these numbers in perspective, remembering that substantial numbers of people also died during the same time due to other more mundane causes such as cancer, car accidents, drug overdose, suicide, and sadly, abortion.

In many ways, our observation of what is happening with this pandemic is like the picture described by the gospel writers as Jesus hung on the cross, breathed his last agonized breath, died, and was placed in a tomb. Gathered within eyesight of the cross were several of his followers, whose lives were being totally disrupted by the loss of their rabbi and friend. His disciples handled his crucifixion in different ways—some were not even present in his last moments. One had been his betrayer. But there were those who stayed and kept vigil with him.

Think of Mary standing there, who so many years before had uttered the simple words, “Let it be to me as you wish” and her life became a living sacrifice in service of the soon to be birthed Savior. She raised this child to manhood, relinquished him to his heavenly Father’s service, and traveled with him at times, supporting him in his ministry.

She stood there at the cross, watching the unthinkable happen to her son, maybe even in that moment finally recalling the prophetic words of Simeon, “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” Bound to Jesus with cords of love, she was comforted by his final wish, that John would care for her in her final days. This simple concern for her wellbeing while he was dying on the cross demonstrated a deep love and concern for Mary. How could she help but lament the loss of such a son?

The women not only watched Jesus as he breathed his final breath, but then followed Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus to the tomb. There the women sat across from the tomb as the men prepared Jesus’ body for burial. There was an urgent need to get it done before the sabbath began at sundown. When the men were finished, they pushed a stone across the front of the tomb. There Jesus laid, hidden from view, observed from a distance by the brokenhearted women who were his followers.

Lament is a healthy response to suffering and death. Dismay and concern are common feelings which rise out of one’s heart and mind—we lament the loss of all that is good, meaningful, treasured. We grieve the loss of what we cherish, the ending of those moments of connection, the changes in our everyday occurrences which are now forever altered. As we lament, we consider the ramifications of what just occurred or is occurring—our lives will be forever altered because of this moment, this unbearable change.

Some of us never allow ourselves to slow down long enough to even contemplate our losses, much less grieve them. To lament means taking the time to sit by the tomb and observe what is taking place, the reality of death and dying. It means allowing ourselves to feel our feelings and to accept that if or when that person dies, our world will never be the same ever again.

At first glance, death and dying are horrible bedfellows. Our natural response to death is to either fear it, resist it, or deny it. Or, possibly for some people, death can become so common in certain situations that we begin overlook it, becoming desensitized to the pain and suffering which go with it. Either way, we need to face death head on, keeping vigil with God at the tomb as what only he can do is accomplished—we need to rest in the tomb with Jesus, allowing him to be who he is as our Lord and Savior, in his death.

Going back to our story—the women watched the tomb, but could not open it. They were going to need help to get the stone moved so they could tend to Jesus’ body and use the ointments and spices would prepare. On the next day, the sabbath and holy day, the Jewish leaders went to Pilate and asked that the tomb be sealed shut and a guard be set over it. These leaders were so afraid that Jesus’ promise to rise from the grave would happen they had to find a way to prove it did not happen. The tomb was sealed shut and the guards posted.

But the vigil of the guards was much different than the vigil of the women. The women watched in sorrow, taking note of where Jesus was buried, hoping to tend to his body after the sabbath in addition to what Joseph and Nicodemus had already done. In time they went home to put together spices and ointments to bring back later.

Meanwhile, Roman soldiers were put in place by the Jewish leaders. The guards kept watch, protecting the tomb from tampering. They were indifferent to who was in the tomb and what might be going on inside the tomb. All they cared about was watching for anyone outside the tomb violating the seal.

In the same way today, our vigil in the midst of the pandemic can be focused on all of the externals, on all the possible violations of the rules, or on all of the bad outcomes that might occur due to COVID-19 and all the other scary stuff happening in the world right now. Or our focus can be on the One who is in the tomb and the hope which in ours in the midst of all this because he, for a time, laid in the grave just as each of us will one day.

Keeping vigil with Jesus as he hung on the cross and laid in the grave is a sobering reminder that there are parts of our broken humanity which needed to be crucified and to die—we all have places where we deny our personhood as image-bearers of our God. Our focus must be, not on all our failures to love, the tragedies of this world, and the suffering of our humanity, but on the One who lived our life and died our death. He is the one who carried our humanity into the grave and reformed it, as a caterpillar in a cocoon is metamorphosized into a beautiful butterfly.

Jesus had become a curse for us, had become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What was happening in the tomb that Saturday involved each and every human being on earth—death itself was being invaded by Jesus and robbed of its power. No longer need death cause fear, dread and sorrow—we now can have hope. The morning would bring proof that there is nothing in this world that can separate us from God’s love—not even death on a cross. There is life beyond the grave. By faith, death becomes merely a door into an eternity in the presence of our loving God, with whom we will dwell in glory forever.

Thank you, Abba, for rescuing us from the jaws of death. Thank you, Jesus, for penetrating the gates of hell itself for our sake, so we could be once and for all free from the fear of death. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for all the ways you comfort us, heal us, and make real in us the finished work of Christ. Grant us the grace in the midst of illness, suffering, and dying, to trust in your healing power and presence, find comfort and peace in your love, and keep our eyes on Jesus our Lord and Savior. Amen.

“This I recall to my mind, | Therefore I have hope. | The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, | For His compassions never fail. | They are new every morning; | Great is Your faithfulness. | ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’” Lamentations 3:21–24 NASB

See also Matthew 27:57–66, John 19:38–42, and 1 Peter 4:1–8.

Abandoned or Beloved and Held?

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By Linda Rex

April 10, 2020, GOOD FRIDAY, HOLY WEEK—Lately, nothing has turned out as I had planned earlier in the year and none of what I had expected to occur has occurred. I’m watching the unravelling of everyday life as new patterns of living are being created day by day as we try to live in the middle of these unique circumstances. Pastoring my congregations has become challenging in new ways as I work to find ways for us to stay connected while being apart.

This season of preparation for Easter has been full of opportunities to examine the inner workings of my heart and mind as I deal with this uncomfortable reality of so many things being beyond my control. Not that they haven’t always been that way, but in these days so much is not by choice but by necessity. Simply choosing between products at the supermarket has become a new experience now that my options are reduced to buying what’s left on the shelf or not buying the item at all.

I’m sure that my grandparents, were they still alive, would be able to tell me stories about how they had to ration items, reuse and recycle things, and do without much in order to survive the Depression years ago. I think of my own parents and how they handled anticipating 2000 by stockpiling dry goods in aluminum trash cans and have a more tender understanding heart than I did when I first had to find a way to dispose of pounds of moth-laden flour and grains.

We can sometimes get a sense that things will never change—that we will be stuck in this place forever. That is really hard on those of us who are always in motion—this fast-paced world doesn’t favor slowing down to a snail’s pace. We must produce, succeed, move forward, press on—doing any less is to fail, to lose all that one has. Right now, we are in a place in our society where so many of the things we used to be able to control are out of our ability to manage. And this can make many of us very uncomfortable.

As I read John 18-19, the gospel reading for Good Friday, I find myself immersed in a story in which the main character finds himself in a place where it seems he has no control over what was happening to himself. He may have been the Messiah, but he voluntarily surrendered himself to the will and wishes of a group of people who had only in mind his death by crucifixion.

What about the disciples who were walking this road with Jesus? Can you imagine how upset and probably even confused Peter was when, trying to protect his rabbi and friend from arrest, Jesus told him to put his sword away? Here Peter is trying to do the right thing and he gets in trouble instead, and then Jesus heals the man he injured? What’s going on? It was no wonder, that when he was asked if he was one of Jesus’ followers later that night, Peter vehemently denied him three times.

In time, Jesus found himself in the presence of Annias, somebody who was a powerful Jewish religious leader, who acted as though he were God’s gift to his people. The truth is, however, that God never meant any high priest to be a political leader. Nor did he mean for the Romans to choose the Jews’ high priest. God ordained the lineage of the high priest, who was responsible for tending to the nation’s relationship with their Creator and Redeemer.

How poignant it is that Jesus was illegally interrogated by a man who was more interested in his being able to market products on the temple grounds than he was ensuring that he and the people were welcoming their Messiah. Was he seeking revenge for Jesus upsetting the tables and casting out his moneychangers?

It is remarkable to me that these particular leaders were more intent on getting rid of Jesus than they were genuinely loving and serving God. They were so intent on having him cursed by Roman crucifixion that they broke their own rules and even, when pushed, said that they had no king but Caesar. Their emphatic denial of who Jesus was as the Son of God caused them to, whether they would have admitted or not, deny the very God they so piously served.

When Pilate sought to find the reason for their efforts to kill Jesus, he could not find any fault in Jesus. John records three times that Pilate said Christ wasn’t guilty. The Roman leader even sought to find a way to let Jesus go, but eventually succumbed to the will of the Jews. Jesus, yielding himself to the course of these events, told Pilate that if he as the king of the Jews had wanted to, Jesus could have stopped the whole process immediately. But he didn’t.

I have a hard time getting my mind around the voluntary surrendering of oneself to the will of those who wish to destroy you when you have the ability to stop it. We do this sometimes when we are in toxic relationships and don’t have the life skills to oppose controlling people. But this was something entirely different. Jesus was intentionally walking down a road that had been planned out before the beginning of time and he knew this was the only way that he could accomplish what God intended from the beginning—to unite our humanity with his divinity and take it through death into resurrection, purchasing for us an eternal bond of oneness with God that nothing could break.

We may think that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was something the Father did to Jesus, but in reality, the fault lies with us as human beings. It is our turning away from God that required Jesus turning us back in his sacrifice. The alienation we feel in our relationship with God was keenly felt by Jesus in his humanity, expressed in his cry during his last moments, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But as the rest of Psalm 22 shows, he had every reason to trust his faithful Abba—to know that he was present with him in that agonizing moment on the cross. As Jesus breathed his last, he entrusted his spirit into his Abba’s care—nothing, not rejection, not abuse, not crucifixion, and not even death, could separate Jesus from the love and unity which existed between the three Persons of the Trinity.

Jesus is well-versed in what it feels like to have people and circumstances impacting his life, bringing it to a place he would prefer not to go. Jesus told Abba he wanted to avoid “the cup” if at all possible—but relinquishment is what he chose. We don’t go through these times of crisis well if we are unwilling to relinquish control to Jesus and allow him to do for us what we could not otherwise do. We need to remember that we are not alone, but are held in the grip of grace, in the love and life of God himself—included in his embrace. As we trust in Christ and receive by faith the never-ending love and grace of God, we will experience the reality that we are not abandoned—we are beloved and held.

As we go through this time of crisis, of change and loss of control, let’s remember to pause for a time with Jesus on the cross, knowing that we are held in the love of God and nothing can separate us from that love. On this Good Friday, we can celebrate with gratitude the incredible gift Jesus gave in his surrendering to the cross and the grave so that we could share in his resurrection. May this give us great comfort and peace in these difficult times.

Dear Abba, thank you that your love never fails. Thank you, Jesus, for walking the road to crucifixion and death so lovingly and faithfully, humbly willing to give all for our sakes. Grant us the grace to walk this road with you, offering grace and love to our fellow travelers as we go, for your sake, Jesus. Amen.

“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, | And our sorrows He carried; | Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, | Smitten of God, and afflicted. | But He was pierced through for our transgressions, | He was crushed for our iniquities; | The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, | And by His scourging we are healed. | All of us like sheep have gone astray, | Each of us has turned to his own way; | But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all | To fall on Him.” Isaiah 53:4-6 NASB

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest. Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel. In You our fathers trusted; They trusted and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were delivered; In You they trusted and were not disappointed.” Psalm 22:1-4 NASB

“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.” Hebrews 4:7 NASB

Is God Among Us or Not?

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By Linda Rex

MARCH 15, 2020, 3rd SUNDAY IN EASTER PREPARATION—Have you ever felt weary from the journey, wanting to just sit down, exhausted from the journey on the rocky road of life? Has life come at you full speed, ripping out of your hands everything that to you is precious and worth having? We all come to places there we find ourselves in the dry, barren wilderness where we wonder if we will ever again be in a place of joy, plenty, and peace.

As this area of middle Tennessee still reels from the impact of the tornadoes earlier this week, I am reminded again of the fragility of human life. Our technological wonders become impotent when the power goes out. Our cities become a mass of traffic snarls and, sad to say, even human predators begin roaming the streets, looking for ways to take advantage of those already in crisis.

In the midst of our suffering and struggles, we can so easily begin to gripe and complain, much like the Israelites when they came to the wilderness of Sin at Rephidim and there wasn’t any water (Ex. 17:1-7). The circumstances they found themselves in spoke more loudly than the past experiences of God’s presence and care as they journeyed. Even though they had been given plenty of evidence that God was with them and cared about them, they still questioned the reality of it, asking, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”

How easy it is for us to forget the living, loving presence of God! The psalmist in Psalm 95 speaks of how impossible it was for the people of God to find rest in him when they kept forgetting who he was—the loving Lord who had redeemed them from slavery and had brought them into covenant relationship with himself. They had forgotten the simple truth—God was theirs and they were his. If they had simply trusted in this God who was united with them in covenant love, they would have had peace and comfort in the midst of their struggles, and would known he was going to provide for their every need on the journey.

In the story in Exodus we find that Moses was told by God to take his rod and to strike the rock at Horeb, so that water would flow from it so they could drink. In Psalm 95, the psalmist calls God himself “the rock of our salvation.” He is the one who “is our God, | And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” This is the God who sat by the well in Samaria, wearied from the journey, simply asking for a drink of water.

It was not enough for God to sit up in heaven watching us go through life, stumbling and hurting, and failing to love and be loved. He solidified his relationship with the creatures he had made by taking on our humanity and dwelling for a time in the midst of our human existence, experiencing all the temptations we face during our lives here on earth. In Jesus Christ, the One who is God in human flesh, the immovable crag, the solid Rock of our salvation, we find the source of our refreshment and renewal.

Just as the rock in the wilderness was struck by Moses, Jesus was abused, tortured, and killed by those for whom he came. But we read in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (NASB). The greatest expression of the covenant love of God toward humanity is found in this gift of Jesus Christ, for in him and through him, we are given life.

Jesus told the woman he met at the well in Samaria, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14 NASB). God came in the person of Jesus Christ, was crucified for our behalf, but rose again, drawing all humanity with him into the presence of the Father. In the sending of the living water, the Spirit, we are invited to drink of eternal life, the life which Jesus forged for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In spite of how we may feel at the moment and in spite of what we may see happening all around us, the spiritual reality is that we are held in the midst of the love and life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We are included in their divine life, and by the Spirit we participate in the eternal loving relationship between the Father and the Son. We are held at all times in the loving hands of our heavenly Father—no matter what our personal experience at the present time here on earth may be.

As long as we keep our eyes on our circumstances and refuse to believe in the living Presence of our loving God, we will find no rest or peace. Our anxiety and negative outlook find their roots in the lingering question in our hearts and minds, “is God among us or not?” We can look at Jesus as though he is a boulder—hard, cold, and impenetrable. We can refuse to believe God cares at all about us or the circumstances in our lives. But we would be believing a lie, a lie which prevents us from seeing or hearing the One who is truly present with us at all times.

We find hope in the midst of our struggles when we come to know and believe that God is present in us, with us, and for us in the person of Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Trusting in Jesus enables us to find rest in the middle of tragedy and suffering, offering us peace in spite of what is happening all around us. The apostle Paul writes, “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Romans 5:3-5 NLT)

It is essential that we remember and believe who God is—the God who loves us so much that he was willing to come and be present with us in the midst of our human suffering, struggles, and death, and to lift us up into life with himself. This is the God who has committed himself to us by taking our very humanity, our life and death, upon himself so we can be with him both now and forever. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 8:38-39, “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love … revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (NLT). Now that is a promise—and a Being—worth resting in.

Thank you, Father, for your faithful love in spite of our forgetfulness and unbelief. Holy Jesus, thank you for your immeasurable gift of yourself and for sending the Spirit from the Father so we can begin to know and believe we are loved, held, and cared for at all times, no matter our circumstances. Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to receive the flowing waters of eternal life, allowing ourselves to be immersed both now and forever in God’s love and grace, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“He named the place Massah and because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us, or not?” Exodus 17:7 NASB

“Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, | As in the day of Massah in the wilderness, | When your fathers tested Me, | They tried Me, though they had seen My work. | For forty years I loathed that generation, | And said they are a people who err in their heart, | And they do not know My ways. | Therefore I swore in My anger, | Truly they shall not enter into My rest.” Psalm 95:8-11 NASB

See also John 4:5-42 and Romans 5:1-11.

Finding Gladness and Joy

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By Linda Rex

JOY
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?

Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?

We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?

Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.

And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.

A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.

This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?

Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.

Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.

Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.

Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?

So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.

Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?

This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?

It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.

May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.

Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB

“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB

Changing Our Inner Lens

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By Linda Rex

September 15, 2019, Proper 19—The parable about the lost coin nearly always brings to my mind the many times when I have lost something important and have searched all over in my attempts to find it. As I get older, I’m discovering that it’s getting easier for me to lose things and harder for me to find them. I confess that on occasion I have had to use my landline phone to call my cellphone because I could not find it anywhere.

My daughter dreads hearing me say that I can’t find my glasses because she knows they could be just about anywhere. She immediately checks to make sure they are not on my head—sometimes things are not as badly lost as we think they are. Sometimes we just need to change our viewpoint or our perspective, or what we believe to be true.

This parable of the lost coin shows the heart of our loving Abba, who is willing to go to great lengths to ensure that each of his children has a place at his table. It’s bad enough that we believe he’s looking for reasons to exclude us, but then we also often believe that he is indifferent as to whether or not we’re even present in his life. Neither are true.

The coin the woman searched for was a drachma, worth about a day’s wages. Back when I was an hourly employee earning minimum wage, losing a day’s wages was equivalent to not having any water that month or not being able to put gas in the car. When I lost a day’s wages or lost a valuable check, I was concerned. I needed every penny I earned. I had bills to pay and kids to feed and care for.

The diligence with which the house got searched increased with the value of the item lost. The urgency with which this woman searched her house was a reflection of the value she placed upon that lost coin. It is a reflection of the passion with which our Abba searches for his lost ones. Finding those who are his lost ones and bringing them home to be with him was very important to Abba—so important that the Word of God, his Son, came into our cosmos, shared in our humanity and our suffering, and brought us home to be with Abba forever.

There is no person today who is completely and totally lost, who is not found in Christ. On God’s side, he has searched out and found each and every one of us—including us in the humanity of our risen Lord. Our lostness is a matter of unbelief, not of spiritual reality. What we believe about God, about ourselves, and about who Jesus is and what he did, is critical. If we believe we are lost, forsaken, and abandoned, we will live as though that is true. But if we believe Christ has come and brought us home to his Father (which he has), then we will live as though that is true, and live in the joy, peace, and hope of God as we participate in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit.

Now sometimes we can be so sure of our own goodness and righteousness that we don’t realize we have wandered away from the God who loves us. This was what Jesus faced when the scribes and Pharisees began to criticize him for eating with sinners. When we begin to delineate between righteous people and sinners, including ourselves in the righteous group, we are in a dangerous place. We are declaring ourselves as having no need for Jesus and for what he did for us. We are denying reality.

Jesus emphasized our need to see ourselves accurately—as sinners in need of grace. As long as we believe we are righteous and do not need to be saved, we have no need of Jesus. We can live in this place of denial all our lives, but there will come a point where we will need to face the reality that apart from Jesus, we are lost. Apart from his finished work in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, we don’t have life today or hope for the future. We need to accept the truth that our eternity, and our present, are wrapped up in Jesus—he is our life. He is our right relationship with God and others.

There is great joy in heaven, Jesus said, when someone throws away the blinders and begins to see themselves with clear vision. Confessing the truth about ourselves paves the way for us to begin to live and walk in truth, in the spiritual realities in which we were included when Jesus came in our place on our behalf. And living in the reality that we are sinners saved by grace, beloved adopted children of the Father, changes how we treat those around us.

Instead of focusing on the failures, faults, and weaknesses of those around us, we focus on Christ—on him being at work in each person and in their lives by the Spirit, helping them come to see and believe that they too have been found and brought home to the Father. Rather than offering ridicule, criticism or condemnation, we offer encouragement, comfort, and understanding. Rather than rejecting or belittling them, we pray for them and offer them appropriate support.

It is in these ways that we participate with Jesus in searching for the lost and bringing them home to the Father. God has already done the hard part in the finished work of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. Now we get to join in as we follow Christ and the lead of the Spirit as God works in each person’s life to bring them to faith. We pray for them and share the good news with them. We share the love of God, extending the grace and mercy of Jesus, and trust God to finish what he already has begun in each person’s life.

So, today, how do we need to reconsider the way we look ourselves and the people around us? Are we using a clear and accurate lens? Do we see things through the lens of Jesus Christ? We may need to ask Abba for new glasses—or maybe we just need to clean the grime off of them so we can see things the way they really are. Either way, we may just discover that what we believe is lost has already been found.

Dear Abba, thank you for so diligently searching for us, finding us, and bringing us home to you. Give us clear vision, the lens of your Son Jesus Christ. Fill us anew with the Spirit of truth so we not only see the spiritual realities, but also the truth about those you have placed in our lives. Enable us to love them as you have loved us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’… I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance….In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’” Luke 15:2, 7, 10 NASB

The Loss of a Brother

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By Linda Rex

We never know how our lives may be touched by another person. Sometimes it is just a momentary conversation that we never forget; other times it is sharing a traumatic event with someone. We may be connected to someone in a long-term relationship or they may be a casual acquaintance we share life with only on occasion. In whatever way a person may be connected with us, they do touch us in some way, and when they go, we often feel a sense of loss or even a deeper grief—part of us leaves with them, it seems.

This morning I was notified of the death of a pastor friend, John Novick. I grieve for his family and pray they will experience God’s near presence and comfort in their loss. I also feel sad at his passing because he touched my life in a very special way.

For a time, John and I worked together on a regional pastoral team for Paul David Kurts. We spent time going through leadership training together with the team. During our service on the regional team and as my brother in Christ, he heard my struggles as a pastor and a woman in leadership, and on more than one occasion he prayed for me and my family. He offered me his encouragement and many reminders of God’s faithful love. Even though we were co-workers in Christ and not connected in any other way, John ministered God’s love and grace to me in a way which helped bring me healing, renewal, and challenged me to grow up in Christ.

John had a special ability to articulate well the reality that we are held in God’s love. He believed that you and I were created to, and do through Christ, participate in the Triune relationship of love between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. When I was caught in my “I am not” way of thinking, he would remind of the “I am” I was in Christ—I am beloved, I am forgiven, I am accepted, I am held—the list goes on. He struggled as we all do to fully embrace the truth of who we are in Christ, but that which he did grasp he was quick to share with those around him. For this I am grateful.

It was my heart’s desire that John be able to continue to be with us a little longer. But it would have been a struggle for him, so God was gracious and took him home. The life he has now is so much better than anything he would have had here, so I accept God’s will in this and pray for comfort for his family and friends.

I am grateful for the hope we have in Jesus. What a blessing it is that we can look forward to sharing in Christ’s “life-giving spirit” because Jesus died our death, laid in the tomb, and then rose from the grave. Apart from the resurrection of Christ, the crucifixion is only a partial solution for us. In the same way, the resurrection does not have it’s fully meaning apart from the crucifixion.

Jesus was a living soul in the same way Adam and the rest of us are living souls. Jesus laid our human flesh, our living souls, our humanity, in the grave. Jesus’ flesh was a “perishable body”, “sown in dishonor” and “in weakness”. It was a “natural body” which quite naturally came to an end at some point and needed to be buried because it was going to decompose and go back to its basic elements.

The reality now is that death is nothing to be feared. Death is going to happen to each of us. It is part of the natural progression of our humanity after the fall. But it has no power over us any longer—we have been given eternal life through Jesus Christ, and in him we are new creatures. Just as Jesus rose from the grave, we now rise from the grave by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, who was sent to us by Jesus from the Father.

Jesus walked out of the tomb with a humanity which was glorified. This humanity was an “imperishable body”, “raised in glory” and “in power”. It is a “spiritual body” which shares in Christ’s “life-giving spirit.” The “seed” of our broken, spent deceased flesh is planted, the apostle Paul says, but what comes from it is a glorified, spiritual body.

We can get some glimpses of what this body may be like when we read about what Jesus did while on earth with his disciples after the resurrection. He appeared and disappeared at will. He caught fish and ate it; he broke bread, thanked his Father for it. He walked and talked, and spent time teaching his disciples. I can picture John sitting with Jesus and John, the son of Zebedee, on a seashore eating fish together and talking about their mutual friend Baxter Kruger’s latest book.

Even though another of my friends has “moved on”, I’m happy he is free from his suffering and is now able to do what he was really looking forward to doing. I’m looking forward to a day when I can thank him for the little, but big way in which he touched my life. Although I still don’t think I will want to eat fish for breakfast, I may be willing to try it if I can have a chance to do so with Jesus.

Dear Abba, thank you for the people you place in our lives—the ones we learn from, the ones who bless us and pray for us, even the ones we get to help. Thank you for giving us opportunities to grow in relationship with people day by day, learning more about you and about ourselves in the process. God, please offer comfort to each person who is grieving a loss today. Let them know you are near and are weeping with them, and offering them your comfort and love, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. … So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised can imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living soul.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” 1 Corinthians 15:36-37, 42-45 NASB

When Christmas Gets Messy

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By Linda Rex

LOVE—The Christmas celebration at my house this year hasn’t been at all what we anticipated or planned. The lovely Christmas tree with its shiny ornaments and bells was taken out by one half-grown kitten. Our other cat never showed much interest in the tree, but we knew this might be a different story with the kitten, and it was.

We didn’t mind losing the tree–it was an old artificial one and the base had been held together by hanger wire for a couple of years now. The kitten was fascinated with the the old tablecloth we used for a tree skirt. The tree skirt ended up torn in half, and carried to other parts of the house. Her obsession with the tree branches and one certain Christmas bell caused her to knock the tree over, and in the process, what was left of the tree base ended up broken.

The cat-astrophy meant all the ornaments and pretty ribbons were put away and the tree was taken down. But the loss of the décor, though sad, was not the end of Christmas. It just meant the celebration was going to be different this year. We’re already thinking about a cat-proof tree for next year.

This is a good illustration of what Christmas is about though. Our commitment to a little creature who in her innocent and fun-loving heart ruined our decorations remains unchanged. Sometimes love means disrupting our lives for the sake of another—maybe even not having things the way we prefer them to be. People and pets are messy, and they have the ability to inconvenience and irritate us. But love enables us to set such things aside or to deal with such things with grace, and to make room for people and pets in our lives anyway.

Our Christmas celebration has already ended up different than we expected this year with my son not being home with us. But we’ll still do many of the fun things we like to do—bake cookies, share with others, open gifts, and sing Christmas carols. We’ll celebrate Christmas with others at church, light candles at the Christmas Eve service, and take communion together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we’ll rejoice in the great gift God gave us in sending his Son to us for our redemption and salvation.

Somehow the fundamentals of Christmas really have nothing to do with the trappings of Christmas and have everything to do with the reality that God has come to dwell with man, and we are forever changed because of it. God’s love for you and for me was so great that he was not willing to allow anything to come between us, and he was willing to put himself at great expense and inconvenience for our sake to ensure that we would be included in his life both now and forever.

You and I are not much different than the little kitten who is just seeking life, enjoying a moment of pleasure without realizing or assuming responsibility for the consequences of our actions. We often go about our lives indifferent to the spiritual realities, not realizing the impact we have on those around us both in bad and good ways. Many times it isn’t until the tree falls that we realize what we are doing isn’t really a blessing for those around us.

We have a gracious and loving God who is well-acquainted with our faults and failures. God did something incredible and amazing when he created human beings in his own image. And he declared from the very beginning that what he made when he created us was very good. God doesn’t make worthless items. All he made is good—even the annoying little kitties who ruin our Christmas decorations.

It wasn’t enough for God to make everything very good. He ensured the restoration of our fallen humanity, and with it this fallen creation. He came himself in the person of the Word, taking on all that was fallen, and in himself Jesus made, is making, and will make everything new. In Christ, the messiest person has new life and hope for a new day. The miracle of Christmas is light in our darkness, hope in our despair, and peace in our anxiety and distress.

If you are struggling through a difficult Christmas this year, wondering how you will ever make it through, Jesus Christ offers you his hope, peace and joy, and the most gracious gift of love anyone could give—he offers you himself, in your place, on your behalf. He offers you his Spirit, the gift of love, grace, comfort, and renewal. He offers you his perfect relationship with his Father—one which is never ending and filled with love and understanding.

Life may continue to be difficult. Christmas may continue to be messy. The struggles may not seem to get any easier. But in the silent moments as you ponder the baby in the manger, do you not feel it? Do you not hear it? For you, the heartbeat of love, of tender care, of deep unending affection, will never cease—you are loved now and forever, and held in the embrace of the holy One, while the angels sing.

Merry Christmas!

Dear Abba, you hold us as the holy mother held her Son Jesus, gazing with deep love and affection upon us, willing to do whatever it takes to keep us close to you, living in the truth of who we are as your beloved children. Comfort, heal, strengthen and help each of us—free us from our despair, loneliness, and grief. Grant us the grace to know we are beloved, held and provided for both now and forever, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” Psalm 80:2a-3 NIV

“And he will be our peace…” Micah 2:5a NIV

A video of this blog may be accessed here.

Walking Through the Valley

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By Linda Rex

Life never ceases to amaze me with it’s twists and turns, and unexpected movements. It is rare that my life has been on an even keel–there’s always something at work in it bringing disruption, or concern, or just adjustment.

Sometimes the difficulty is a long-term illness which ends in death. Its timing may or may not be predictable, but death is the only possible outcome in this life. During a long-term terminal illness the grieving process very often occurs before the death, along with some grieving after. Very often death is seen as a release from suffering, and a blessing to both the loved one and the caring family.

Death was never meant to be a part of the human condition. We were created for life, the life Jesus described by Jesus as knowing the Father and him whom he sent, his Son Jesus Christ. This is life in loving relationship, an interpenetrating oneness of equal yet distinct persons.

Separation, division, or loss of relationship was never intended to be a part our relationship with God or each other. But it is, because of our choice to turn away from the intimate relationship with God we were created for. At Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the tree if the knowledge of good and evil, sin and death entered our human existence. We stubbornly embraced a twisted view of God and who we are, as excluded from relationship with him and in broken relationship with one another. Since then, our human existence has never been the same.

However we may feel about what is written in the Bible in regards to death, we are–no matter what we believe about the afterlife–faced with its reality at some point. Death, and the separation from one another which comes with it, brings heartache and grief. This is because something has occurred which we were not meant to have to experience.

But this need not be a bad thing. Experiences such as these have been redeemed by God in and through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. God can take these experiences and use them to create stronger bonds between us and him, and between us and others.

In Christ not only are we bound to God forever in Christ’s perfected humanity (hypostatic union), but by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, we participate in his perfect union with our Abba by the Spirit. It is in Christ that we are bound together with one another in spiritual community. It is also true that the Spirit is always at work creating community, often in forms we don’t recognize because they may not have any religious trappings.

Family is meant to be a spiritual community which reflects the nature of God as revealed in Christ. When the Spirit is at work in a family, the relationships reflect the inner relations of the Triune God, where there is harmony, humility, mutual submission, and outgoing love. There is a pouring out from and receiving from one another–an endless movement of gracious love which defines God’s very nature as love.

God has always lived in this way, and this is the way of being we were created for, which we lost, but which Christ restored to us in his saving work. This means when we lose someone dear to us through the momentary separation which is death, the best thing to offer the grieving one is loving, gracious relationship. An unconditional relationship–listening, affirming, accepting, and just being present–are critical and essential gifts to offer someone who has lost a dear one.

This means we don’t have to come up with the right thing to say or do, but rather, in the Spirit, we can just be present in Christ with them in the moment. We can remind them they are not alone in their pain, for whatever Satan or our human brokenness has done to attempt to separate us from God or one another has ultimately failed. In Christ we are forever held in the center of God’s love and life. God knows, understands, and participates with us in our loss, suffering and pain. We are not alone.

We have the assurance that there is one relationship which, having been established in Christ, and being brought into reality in individual lives by the Spirit, we will never he separated from. Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ. We are loved simply because we are, and we are his.

And as we face having to redraw the plans of our lives due to a loved ones death, we can be assured that we need not do this alone. Our life is not over–God’s mercies are new every morning and he has new plans for our life which will bring us joy and fulfillment as we participate with Christ in what he has for us.

Finding a new normal is a process which may take years–but there is no set agenda to it. Part of the process may include anger, depression, and denial. The grief may ebb and flow like the ocean’s tide, taking us sometimes by storm or sneaking up on us when we least expect it.

But in the midst of it all, we can be assured we are never alone. We as friends and family of those who have lost a loved one can offer our faithful presence and understanding, with a listening ear and comforting shoulder to cry on. And we can point them to their loving and faithful God who has promised to never leave or forsake them.

Indeed, in Christ, death has been defeated. It has lost its power. And we share in this victory over sin and death as we offer one another comfort, unconditional love, and assurance of faithful relationship in the midst of death and other losses. Just as God in Christ by the Spirit ministers his love and grace to those who grieve, we also share in that ministry to those near and dear to us who grieve.

Abba, thank you for your faithful love and grace. Thank you that we can count on you to be with us and to carry us through our losses and suffering. Enable us to bear one another’s burdens when they become too great to be borne alone. Empower us to offer hope, comfort, and faithful relationship to those who have lost loved ones. We trust this is all possible through Jesus our Lord by your Spirit. Amen.

“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 8:38-39 NASB

Bound Together in Community

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By Linda Rex

The door to my bedroom opened. In walked my daughter’s dog. She headed straight for the bed and jumped up on it. Rather than curling up at the foot of the bed as she often does, she curled up right next to me so her side was pushing against my body.

It seems my daughter’s dog understands better than we do sometimes the need for physical connectedness. She knows by instinct the need for relationship and belonging.

It is too bad we are often so busy pushing one another away or protecting our space, we end up alone and disconnected. We prefer our independence rather than understanding and living in the truth we are all interdependent. We cannot and should not live as separate satellites. This was not God’s intent when he created us.

I think it is interesting that when we pack ourselves together in big cities, people become more and more disconnected. We find ways to hide from each other and to protect ourselves from being harmed. We isolate ourselves and then wonder why we are lonely and depressed.

I was reading an online article this morning about these utopic wellness communities which are being created. They are places where people live together in natural and wholistic communities where their environment is kept as close to nature as possible, and in which people live together and interact together in a community life.

Unlike the inner city, such a community leaves room for people to interact with nature as well as with one another. There is space to just be out and free, rather than concerned about one’s safety and one’s belongings.

I first felt this sort of freedom when I moved to southeast Iowa many years ago. The place I moved to was out in the midst of rural Iowa where any city of any size was about half an hour to forty-five minutes away. Leaving the back door unlocked was the norm, and taking a walk in the woods was a normal daily occurrence when the weather was nice and one wasn’t working. Letting the kids roam at will in the outdoors was a just a part of everyday life.

I noticed a couple of things when I first moved there. The first and most immediate was a sense of relaxation, of rest. I was not in a constant state of subtle inner anxiety. I could just be. The self-protective angst of the big city was not necessary in the same way anymore.

The second thing I noticed and had a hard time getting my mind around, was how everyone knew everyone else. Relationships in a small community were the norm, not the exception. It seems if you didn’t open up and be friendly with your neighbors, that was more of a reason for talk than if you did.

The sense of community all of us long for is a precious commodity. Not all of us have the financial resources or the ability to move to some place which can be more conducive to such a way of life. But we can learn to live in community right where we are. We can learn to live in the rest and freedom of knowing we are included and held in God’s love and life.

In creating the Body of Christ, the Church, Jesus created a community where people who are sharing in God’s love and life are brought together into relationship. The work of the Spirit brings people to faith in Christ and binds them together in spiritual family. The Church then becomes a place of rest where people can grow in their relationship with God and one another, and can find themselves in a “safe” place. This is what the Body of Christ is meant to be for God’s people.

The Body of Christ is also meant to be a safe haven for those buffeted about by this world—a place where they can encounter the Lord Jesus Christ and experience a little bit of the kingdom of God on earth, and the love of God expressed in and through his people.

When someone enters the door of our fellowship hall or our chapel upstairs, they should feel as though they could come in and snuggle up against us, trusting we will not kick them out the door. This requires a lot of grace and understanding. It requires being able to set healthy limits on what we can do and can’t do as far as our behavior toward one another. The house of God is meant to be a place of order, of peace, and a place of worship—but also a place of welcoming, understanding, and grace.

In Christ, the kingdom of God was initiated here on earth. Over the centuries, the Church of Christ has taken on different forms and shapes. But the one identifying factor we can all cling to is that the Church is meant to be a reflection of the very nature and being of Jesus Christ himself. The Church is his hands and feet in a dark world. The Church is a place of hospitality and welcoming when all other doors are shut.

The Church is never meant to be a place of hurtfulness, abuse, or rejection. It is never meant to be a place of separation, cliques, or snobbery. When we find ourselves treating people in these ways, it is time for us to rethink who we are. As God’s children, made in his image, we all gather at the table to share the abundance of his goodness and love. May we never forget the blessings and benefits of sharing in his divine community, and let us never fail to share them with others.

Lord, I thank you for all you have done and all you are doing now, and all you will do, to bring us together into one body in Christ by your spirit. Open our hearts to the truth of our inclusion in your community of faith. Grant us repentance and a change in our way of living so we will begin to experience and live in the truth of how you created us to be as your children. Do continue to work to tear down the walls between us and to create places of community, peace and unity in our world, through Jesus Christ our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 NASB