By Linda Rex
September 8, 2019, Proper 18—As I was reading the passage for next Sunday, I remembered a scene from when I was driving home from Cookeville to Nashville recently. It was located in a small farming community nestled between several tree-covered peaks. In the middle of a large pasture near some other houses sat a wooden frame which looked as though it had been abandoned, with new pieces of lumber scattered among broken pieces from an old farmhouse. What had been built looked great, but sat abandoned, with no one working on it, with no equipment around, and no sign from what I would see that anyone was planning to finish what they started.
If we are honest with ourselves, there are times when we feel like that unfinished building—abandoned, forgotten, with no hope of ever becoming what we believe we really ought to be or could be. We may have had great plans of overcoming this, of developing that, of doing that good deed, but we so often come up short. What we may feel like is worn out, burned out failures at life.
When we think about picking up and carrying our own cross daily, this is often what we feel like. Living life as a Christian and trying to do the right thing all the time is difficult. I’m grateful I do not have to carry Christ’s cross—I’m still trying to fully understand how to carry my own. And this is why it is important to understand what Jesus meant when he said this.
We often assume that the Christian life is meant to be a struggle against sin, a war to overcome the evil within ourselves. This makes our Christian walk rather self-centered, as an effort to become what we are not. But this is not really a helpful way of seeing things, and not what Jesus meant when he told us to carry our cross and to follow him.
What would be helpful for us to understand is that when Jesus told us to pick up our cross daily and to follow him, he was not telling us something we had to do on our own all by ourselves. When a contractor sets out to build a house, he usually does not attempt to do so all by himself. No, he has someone come to do the plumbing, someone to do the electricity, maybe even a few carpenters and carpet layers come to help him out. In other words, he doesn’t attempt the task all by himself—he does it in community.
In the same way, Jesus calls us into community, into fellowship with the Trinity, where we live life in Christ by the Spirit as participants in his own intimate father-son relationship with his Abba. Jesus says no other relationship should have this precedence in our life—we love all others less in comparison. As participants in the divine life and love, we don’t build our lives under our own power according to our own plans. Whatever we do coincides directly with who we are as God’s beloved adopted children who share in Christ’s perfect and holy sonship.
Jesus also calls us into the community of believers. We are not meant to go through the struggles to live as a follower of Christ alone. The Spirit calls us together into a community so that we can encourage each other and lift each other up, and when our burdens become too difficult for us to carry alone, we have someone to come alongside us to help and strengthen us. We aren’t alone, but rather are called into spiritual community, the church, which is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ who, like us, are beloved adopted children of Abba.
In other words, the life of a follower of Jesus becomes a matter of finding and living out our true identity in Christ as Abba’s beloved adopted children rather than seeking to gain acceptance by our religious performance and moral goodness. We don’t depend upon our ability to do what is necessary—the cost is too great because we will fail. We depend solely upon Christ, walking by faith in him, and living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh. Our focus is not on how well we are doing or not doing, but rather on Jesus Christ, and how he has done it, is doing it in us by the Spirit, and will finish it when we are glorified at his return.
What this means is, the cost of our salvation has been paid by Jesus. The cost to us is the laying down of our life and the receiving of Jesus in our place and on our behalf. This means we cease to be the center, other people cease to be the center, and the cares of this life are set completely aside—Jesus Christ himself is now the center of our life. We are baptized in his baptism, acknowledging he lived our life, we died in his death, we rose in his resurrection, and we ascended in his ascension. We eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, thankfully celebrating that he is all we need—his life for our life. He became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
When we count the cost of following Christ, we aren’t examining ourselves to see whether or not we have what it takes to follow through to the end. The reality is we don’t. That’s why God had from the beginning, before all was made, intended to join our life with his life through the incarnation. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is our assurance that we have what it takes—we turn to Jesus, again and again, daily relying upon him to finish what he began in us. We, as temples of the Spirit, are in process, and in the end, the beautiful bride, the universal fellowship of all believers, will shine with God’s glory in his presence forever.
So, the question for today is, what do you need to lay down so that you are solely picking up your daily reliance upon Jesus? What is it that you need to relinquish or surrender control over so that Christ can rule in your heart and life? What relationships need to be given healthy boundaries so Christ becomes your focus instead someone else being the center of your life? You are the beloved adopted child of Abba and by the Spirit you share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with him. Accept your cross of life in Christ daily, and follow him wherever he goes. Let him do the heavy lifting—you enjoy the journey.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your perfect relationship with your Son Jesus. Thank you that by the Spirit, we participate in Christ’s perfected humanity. What a blessing that it is all up to him and not all up to us! Enable us this day, and each day, to lay down all our human efforts at righteousness and surrender fully to dependency upon Christ alone. Enable us to establish healthy relationships, keeping Christ at the center of our lives. Grant us the grace to yield control completely to you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Luke 14:27 NASB
By Linda Rex
PENTECOST—As a pastor, I am often burdened by the struggles and suffering of those I minister to and of those I encounter as I move about in my community. I would love to help people find freedom from the things which enslave them and to find peace, joy, and renewal in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
But I realize how easy it is to allow the distractions and interests of life to occupy my own mind, time, and attention to the place that I lose focus on the things of God. Any relationship becomes stale or divided if not enough attention is given to it. To become indifferent to another person rather than deeply connected with them can easily happen without our realizing it if we are preoccupied with other things.
When we read about the disciples after the resurrection, we find them gathered together in community continuing in their relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer. As a group they were focused in prayer and they remembered that Jesus had told them they were to be witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. But Jesus had told them to wait—to wait until they were clothed with power from on high.
I have no doubt that Peter could have told a powerful story of his own personal redemption, of how he had betrayed Jesus but Jesus had forgiven him and recommissioned him to tend the flock of God’s people. Matthew could have told about how Jesus found him in the marketplace, a despised tax collector, and told him to follow him, and how Jesus had changed his life and given him a new purpose. Mary Magdalene could have shared how Jesus had freed her from her many demons and given her a new life of service and obedience to her Lord.
But Jesus had told each of them to wait. He had told them that telling his story in their story would not be enough. Something more was needed.
God had come in the person of Jesus Christ, had taken on our humanity, had forged a new human existence for us, and had taught his disciples how to love and serve others in the way God meant us as humans to live. But Jesus was touching only a few people’s lives while he was here on earth. From the beginning God had intended the transformation of the entire cosmos. He had meant a change in the very substance of our human existence which would heal, restore, and renew all things.
For this reason, after his death and resurrection, Jesus needed to return to the Father and send the Spirit. Pouring out this gift of God’s presence and power on all flesh gave each human being the capacity for the new life Jesus forged for us while living in our humanity. And Jesus was frank about the reality that the world would not receive this gift. He knew and understood our human capacity to rebel against God and to resist the gracious love of the Father.
It seems that apart from our Abba’s work, we do not receive this gift and walk in the truth of our existence as his adopted children. Our tendency is to listen to and embrace the lies of the evil one instead and to seek our life in this broken existence rather than in the One who created us and redeemed us. We prefer to design and assume our own self-created identity rather than embracing the one given to us by God—to be his image-bearers, children who love him and one another with a self-sacrificial, humble, serving and gracious love.
What we don’t realize is that apart from this precious gift of the Spirit and the work of God’s power and presence in our lives, we are living as if something is missing. There is a capacity we do not have which we need so that we are able to truly be the people God intends us to be. We are not truly ourselves apart from the indwelling Spirit, for when the Spirit dwells richly within us, God dwells within and we participate in the realization of the kingdom of God. We experience in those moments what it describes in Revelation 21:3-5 where God comes to dwell with man and Jesus works to make all things new.
In Genesis, we read how Adam and Eve walked in the garden of Eden with God, talking with him and sharing all of life with him. Being in God’s presence and experiencing a personal relationship with our Creator is what we were created for. But more than that, we have been given through Jesus Christ by the Spirit the very real presence of God within our very being. Now God dwells within us permanently rather than merely being with us.
The power and presence of God within is lifechanging and transformational, but we will not experience the reality of this as long as other people and interests command our attention and focus. If our dependency is upon the things of this life, we will not depend upon God and his Spirit. Due to God’s grace, we can survive quite nicely for a while doing this, but we will miss out on the capacity to fully participate in our real human existence as children of God. We will struggle to truly express the nature of God in our words and actions and any witness we may give to the person and work of Jesus Christ will be limited and ineffective.
Attending upon the things of the Spirit through the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, silence, sharing, bible study, gratitude, and meditation opens us up to the Spirit’s work within. Slowing down and taking time to focus on Jesus Christ allows the Spirit fill us and renew us for the work we have been given—to testify to the goodness and love of the Father expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ. Just as the early church learned to wait for the promise of the Spirit before moving ahead on mission with Jesus, today believers learn to rest in Christ and to wait upon the Spirit before attempting to do ministry in this broken world.
Today, how can we pause and make room for the Spirit’s work within? How can we give undivided attention to the Lord Jesus Christ through prayer and the other spiritual disciplines? Perhaps all that is needed is simply silence and rest. God is present and real at all times—we simply need to awaken to his presence and power within, and to allow the Spirit to renew, inspire, teach, and lead us.
Thank you, Abba, that through Jesus you have sent your Spirit. Awaken us to your presence and power at work within us. Enable us to experience renewal, refreshment, and healing by your precious Spirit. Holy Spirit, fill us anew and empower us to bear witness to Jesus, and to live and walk in truth in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” Acts 2:4 NASB
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” John 14:12 NASB
“For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” Romans 8:14 NASB
By Linda Rex
I remember sitting in our living room as a child reading or putting together a puzzle with one eye on the screen door. From my seat I could see the metal mailbox which was attached to the white post on the front porch. I loved the sense of expectation that came with waiting for the postal employee to put something in it—there was always some hope that a letter was there for me, with my name written on it.
Letters and packages received in the mail have a unique capacity to create a feeling of relational connection. As a child I had a pen pal who lived in Germany and I waited with special anticipation for her response to my letters. I had a cousin who was kind enough to include me in her letter-writing, and since I knew very few of my cousins, it was a delight to get a letter from her as well.
For me, writing a letter to someone provides a way of sharing what I would not ordinarily take the time to say. In other words, for an introvert like myself, it provides a way of thoughtfully putting down on paper (or nowadays in digital type) what is going on in my head. Instead of this creative person struggling to get her words together, I can take the time to sort them out and put them down in an organized fashion.
Letters for millennia have brought people together. I think about the couriers in the Roman empire who carried letters across long distances. We would not have the New Testament epistles if it hadn’t been for the apostles’ efforts to connect relationally with people in other cities and to share the gospel message and spiritual encouragement and teaching with them. In America, we had many brave people who risked life and limb to carry letters in pouches on horseback across the frontier. How sweet it must have been for a mother to receive a long-awaited letter from a son or daughter who had moved clear across the country!
It takes a certain level of commitment to sit down and write a real, personal letter to another person. It’s easy for me to make a standardized letter and use MS Word mail merge to create fifty similar letters addressed to fifty different people. These are not personal in the same way as a letter created with intentional focus on one certain relationship, which attends to the particular nuances of that relational connection.
And there is nothing quite like receiving a letter written from the heart from a friend or a lover—the words on the page are like a conduit of love and grace. There is a beauty in a well-written expression of affection and concern. Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. Sometimes the cruelest words are those written on a page, or today, in an email.
The freedom, though, to send and receive private letters and packages is an important freedom for us to have. In many nations, letters and packages are opened and examined, and the privacy of such communication is not respected. We have in this country taken for granted our ability to receive and send private communication—it is a privilege and a blessing we surely would not want to live without.
So, when a news flash goes out about pipe bombs being received in the mail by certain high-profile people, I get concerned. This news brought a flash back to more than one scare involving a deadly poison being mailed to the president and others in leadership. The insidious effort by evil to create fear and suspicion and thereby destroy relational connection is obvious. What better to create mistrust between people than to ruin their methods of private communication?
And when fear breeds mistrust and suspicion, then the installation of more controls over private communication seems to be the answer. But in reality, it destroys our ability to live in community. I hope in our efforts to create a safe letter and package handling system that we don’t lose our freedom for private communication. It would be a shame to for our college students to never be able to receive a care package because someone else would see the contents first and decide to eat all the cookies and candy. This is a serious issue!
Seriously, though, there is one thing the evil one has done from the beginning and that is to cause us to question our relational connection with God and one another. He is always making this insidious effort to create mistrust and unbelief. And we listen to it and allow it to influence us. And some of us participate in the evil one’s methods and madness. This is how we can end up in a broken world where people do insane things like mailing pipe bombs.
This is not what freedom is for. Freedom is not for us to be able to do whatever we want whenever and however we want. But rather, freedom is for us to be able to live together in the midst of our differences in equality and unity. The purpose of our redemption is so that we quit questioning God and his love, and begin trusting him. We are given the freedom to love and respect one another such that we can trust one another and care for one another as we ought. And our redemption through Jesus enables us to live at peace and in harmony with one another because it brings us all to the same place—to the cross.
Our freedom is not so we can harm and injure one another, but so we can live together in harmony and love, in a world in which each person respects and loves the other, in spite of differences in relationship or personhood. We must beware of any system of government which creates separation and fear, or which sets us against one another rather than working together for the best interests of all those involved.
And we need to be reminded there is a power at work in this cosmos which is greater than any other power. This power underlies everything which is at work in our universe, even down to the minute details of each molecule. This power is beyond our comprehension, and is not intimidated by the arrogant boastful words and actions of any leader of government or industry. This power has all the wealth of the cosmos at its disposal, and can never be opposed without great damage to its opponent. We often live as though this were not the case—but this power is at work in our world in spite of our belief that we are in charge or that certain people are in control due to their financial or political prowess.
This power is a Person, and his name is Jesus Christ. He is that divine Letter sent to us from Abba, to tell us of his love and grace. This Person was not afraid of any method of delivery, but was willing to put himself completely at the mercy of us as human beings, coming in the form of an infant, born and placed in a manger. It was this Person who was willing to risk it all so we would be included in Abba’s love as his adopted children. This Person allowed us to crucify him, knowing that within three days he would walk out of the tomb, having transformed our humanity in the process. The Person sent his Spirit so we could all live together in the harmony and oneness of the Trinity here in our broken world.
Whatever may happen now or in the future, we have this certainty at the root of all things—we are held. We will make it through this, whatever this is, because we are beloved and we are graced by the presence and power of God in his Son Jesus by his Holy Spirit. The Spirit is still at work in this world creating community, tearing down walls, dissolving fear and suspicion, and drawing us together.
Our hearts resonate with the Christ within, enabling us to trust, to believe once more there is hope and there is love at work in this world. The Letter we have received by God’s divine delivery system will accomplish his perfect work in his good time. His explosion of love and grace is at work in this cosmos and will in his good time fill all things and drive out all that is dark and evil, reducing it to chaff blown away by the wind. We have nothing to fear and everything to hope for, because we are holding within ourselves the special delivery we have received from our heavenly Father—the Letter of grace, the indwelling Christ by the Spirit.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for loving us so much! We are so blessed! Do not allow the seeds of mistrust, suspicion, and fear to grow, Abba, but blow them away with your divine Breath, replacing them with seeds of kindness, compassion, and trust. Remove from this nation and others those leaders who would participate with the evil one, and replace them with men and women who embrace and live in the truth of who they are as your children. We are so often at the mercy of those more powerful and wealthy than ourselves, Lord, so show yourself to be the One who is the divine Power at work in this cosmos, the One who holds all things in his hand. Lord Jesus, fill us anew with your Spirit of harmony, grace, and love. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” Job 42:2 NASB
By Linda Rex
This week has been a busy one and when I am overwhelmed timewise in this way, I find it very easy to slip into unhealthy habits of losing sleep or eating things I wouldn’t, and probably shouldn’t, normally eat. The magical thinking begins with this one little phrase “just this once won’t hurt.”
If I was honest, I would have to say this magical phrase too often governs such decisions. For the most part, “just this once” isn’t a bad thing. Really, such impromptu delights bring joy to our lives. We can take pleasure in the here and again treasures we encounter in our daily life—and I believe God meant us to. Life was meant to be filled with such moments of delight in the presence of Abba.
However, when such pleasures begin to govern our decision-making and begin to rule our thoughts and passions, we find ourselves in the midst of what the apostle John calls the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” This is why he says we are not to love the world or the things in the world—it is very easy to become enslaved to anything we put in the place in our hearts, minds, and lives which was meant for God alone.
God is so emphatic or passionate about this because he knows this is not what we were created for. The things we lust after or become addicted to do not fill up the empty place in our hearts and lives we attempt to use them to fill. They may temporarily numb the pain we are experiencing or dull the anxiety we may be feeling, but ultimately, they do not resolve the real issues we need to face and in which we need to experience God’s healing or help.
Our momentary personal pursuit of happiness often actually derails our experience of true joy. In dulling or avoiding the pain, anxiety, or anger we feel, we may lose opportunities to deeply engage God (or others) in some serious one-on-one conversations which may resolve long-lasting resentments, false beliefs, or disagreements. In not engaging these negative feelings, we may be missing out on opportunities to experience healing, renewal, forgiveness, and cleansing—all of which are paths to true joy in the presence of Jesus.
Sometimes I think our culture encourages two extremes with regards to this. On the one hand, we are willing to put people on national television so everyone can see and talk about their messed up thinking and messed up lives. On the other hand, there are people who end up going on a shooting rampage because they’ve never gotten proper help with or healing for their mental and emotional struggles—often we hear no one even knew or cared they were struggling.
In this culture which celebrates indulging our pleasures and passions, we can find it difficult to pursue true joy in our life with Christ. We can be derailed in so many ways, not realizing we’re bound up in unhealthy ways of living or being until we are caught and find it’s not so easy to get out. And the solution isn’t always just as simple as “repent and believe”. It may require something more—relationship. It may require getting up-close and personal with someone about our struggles, failures and pain. And this we avoid.
When God calls us by his grace into relationship with himself, he places us by his Spirit into the Body of Christ. He joins us with other believers. He means for us to live in spiritual community and not to isolate ourselves. He wants us to experience the true joy we were created for, and he know this can only be found within the context of faithful, loving relationship, specifically as children held together within the inner relations of Father, Son, and Spirit.
God does not intend for any of us to have to go through life wounded, broken, and forsaken. He does not mean life to be a depressing, empty struggle. Yes, life will be tough and bad things will happen, but when we engage such a life from within the context of loving, committed relationship with God and our spiritual community, it becomes bearable and even joyful. We may find in the middle of our struggles we experience a deep, inner joy—not because of our human attempts at medicating our pain, but due to Christ indwelling our hearts by the Holy Spirit and us experiencing loving relationships with others within our spiritual community.
As a classic avoider, I have learned there comes a time when the price we pay for avoiding our issues becomes much higher than what it would cost for us to face up to our issues and deal with them. There comes a time when we need to embrace the truth and speak the truth in love or get professional help for our issues. At some point we need to delve into the unpleasant, slicing the festering sore open again so the accumulated pus can be removed and the wound cleansed—this may be what is needed to let real healing start. And this may require professional help, or it may only require healthy the intervention of Christ by his Holy Spirit within the context of spiritual community.
At other times, though, we may just need to experience the little joys of life. The “exception clause” may actually apply in these cases. God sometimes places these little moments of joy in front of us and means for us to experience little tastes of heaven to increase our anticipation of what is to come when we are truly living as glorified humans in the presence of Abba forever. He reminds us in this way of his affection for us and of his faithful love and grace, drawing from us the gratitude and praise he deserves to receive in response.
All the things we attach ourselves to in this life and believe are necessary for our fulfillment and pleasure must be seen within the context of eternity. Some are just passing pleasures which will one day be supplanted by the genuine eternal pleasures of life in Christ.
True lasting joy may be found in what will endure beyond this life on into the next—giving to, sharing with, serving, helping, forgiving, and loving others. Notice these are all ways in which we pour out from ourselves and into others, and in which we receive from others what they have to give. This is the divine perichoretic life—and this is what we were created to participate in forever. In this life, there are no exceptions—there will be no “just this once”, but an eternal participation in the life and love of Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit which is filled with joy and peace, and all God’s blessings through Jesus our Lord.
Thank you, Abba, for all your good gifts and for sharing with us the life you share with your Son and your Spirit. Grant us the grace to face up to the truth as we need to and to get the help which may be required for us to get well and stay healthy. Enable us to find, experience, and live in the true joy you created us for—pour into us your joy, for all our springs of joy are found in you. May we celebrate now and forever, in perfect joy, the gift of eternal life with you, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.” Psalm 51:12 NLT
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:15-17 NKJ
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
By Linda Rex
One of the little known facts of my existence is one year I was Miss Sadie Hawkins at the yearly high school Sadie Hawkins dance. To this day I believe the only reason I received this special bouquet of roses was solely due to the efforts of my best friend to dress me in one of her mother’s traditional square dance outfits, and the blessing of having a date who was an energetic and skilled dancer.
Square dancing is both challenging and fun. One has to pay attention to the caller, follow his instructions, and do so at the same time he or she is interacting with seven other people in the square. When everyone is all in tune with the caller and one another, the group can do very intricate movements in time with the music. But all it takes is one person stopping to do a do-si-do in the middle of an allemande left, and you have bruised shins, broken toes, and lot of unhappy people.
Square dancing is a good illustration of what it’s like living in the divine dance with Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit. In Christ, God has given us a way of living and being in Jesus Christ which involves each and every person around us. As we listen to the Spirit and obey the living Word, we move together in the intricate dance of life.
It is the Spirit who interlaces us together in spiritual community. The binding together of people in spiritual community can and does happen just about anywhere, whether at the office, a family gathering, a meeting of neighbors, or a high school prom. When there is this communion of people who would not necessarily be joined together otherwise, we see the Spirit at work creating community.
The Spirit’s communion-creating work is meant to be most evident within the church community, the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, the humanity of any of us can get in the way of healthy spiritual community. So even the church, whose members are supposed to reflect the divine communion, can be filled with do-si-doers who are disrupting the allemande left of the Spirit.
Now, let me clarify something here. There is a profound difference between someone who is selfishly disrupting the dance, and someone who just hasn’t figured out the steps yet. We’re all at a place of learning when it comes to the divine dance, so we all need to accept the reality there are times when we just don’t have a clue as to what we are doing. This is when we need to be surrounded by grace.
We need to realize the living Word is willing to start the set over anytime we get too tangled up to keep going. Abba never stops singing over us, and the Spirit always is at work to bring us together and keep us in tune with God and one another. So the group we are dancing with needs to have the grace to laugh off our stumbling faulty efforts and keep going, picking up where we left off and listening to the living Word as he gives us the next direction for the dance.
Keeping in step with Abba’s music and the living Word’s direction requires an alertness, a constant paying attention to what is going on within us and around us as the Spirit moves. The grace to truly love other human beings in real relationship really does require death and resurrection—a constant dying to our own agenda and moving in full agreement and participation with God in his, in harmony with all those around us.
Participating in the divine dance is also a journey in which each of us grows more and more skilled in following the call of the Word upon our lives and keeping in time with Abba’s song. The Spirit is ever at work, and we are free to embrace and obey the Spirit in each and every moment as he moves.
We have also been, in God’s love and grace, given the freedom to squelch, reject, and disobey the Spirit and the divine Word of God to us. Why would someone want to disrupt the dance when they could have such a really good time dancing with everyone? I don’t know, but we do it, don’t we?
Our human proclivity is to jitterbug in the middle of a promenade, or to start shouting our own calls for everyone to follow. Let’s just be honest about this—joining in the dance is often something we only want to do on our own terms. This is why God calls us to repentance and faith, and this is why Abba sent his Son to join with us in our dance.
So not only does the Word speak to us the steps of the dance, he also came and danced our steps with us, in us, and for us. God was not content to just sit up on the stage and call the dance—he came down into the crowd and began dancing with us. He knows how easy it is to miss a step, or to not understand an instruction for the next movement of the dance. He’s shared this dance with us in person, from the moment of his birth on through his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. He knows how hard it can be to stay in tune with Abba and obedient to the Spirit.
In Jesus Christ we find we are all experienced and skilled dancers. He, by his Spirit, keeps us in tune with Abba, and helps us recover when we miss a step or get out of sync with those around us. Jesus gives us hope that we will never be left out of the dance, and he, by the Spirit, enables us to freely join in this dance of God’s love and life.
This time of year we are reminded of the great gift of love God gave us in sending us his Son to dwell in our humanity, in our midst—Jesus Christ who is fully man and fully God. We are reminded of how God values each and every one of us, and includes us in his divine dance. The call to us at Christmas is to come and celebrate this precious gift of love. Embrace the wonder of Abba’s perfect gift, and join with us and others in dancing with delight to Abba’s glorious song of love.
May you all have a blessed and joyful Christmas!
Thank you, Abba, for singing your song of love over us, and for welcoming us through Jesus and by your Spirit into your divine dance. Grant us the grace to again embrace the joy of life with you, and to listen and obey your living Word and ever-present Spirit. Keep us in step with the beat of your heart, and move us to live in harmony with one another moment by moment. And do give us joy in your dance, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever!” Psalm 30:11–12 NLT
By Linda Rex
Many years ago, I attended a mega church for a while. It was located a little distance from me but provided some important counseling resources which were not available in my neighborhood, nor with the other church I normally attended.
One of the first things I noticed about this church was that nearly every car in the parking lot was only two to three years old and in good condition. I was a little embarrassed to have to park my old clunker next to the shiny minivans and SUV’s, but I did it anyway. As I walked inside the building, the people around me seemed friendly, though preoccupied. They were good folks, and I found it quite easy to melt into the crowd and not have to engage anyone in conversation.
After a few weeks, I became more and more aware of the subtle difference in financial status between me and the other people in the church. Most of the conversations between the people in the study group I joined involved decisions about a second or third car, a summer home, or a long vacation in Hawaii. I did not feel able to contribute anything to these conversations because I was still wondering how on minimum pay I would handle all the bills I had coming due in the next week. It was rather awkward for me, but I was there to study the Word of God with fellow believers, not to wrestle with financial inequities. So I let it go.
As the years have passed I have on occasion experienced more of this disparity between the wealthy church, and the broken community within and without the church who needs helped and healed. I have met and grown to love some pretty amazing people for whom the distress of suffering financially or physically is a foreign concept, or one they have experienced only briefly in their lives.
These people are compassionate and generous, but they can sometimes be completely out of touch with the everyday struggles of the needy. It’s not that they don’t care or are indifferent, but that it’s either not a part of their everyday experience, or they feel it would not be genuinely helpful for them to take on responsibilities which belong to the people who are struggling. And they have a valid point.
The culture we live in today often looks perplexedly at the Christian church, wondering why we are not more helpful to those who are suffering. I have no doubt there is room for us to grow in our generosity and helpfulness towards the poor and needy. But it may be that those who are being critical of us have a skewed view of what it means to have life and to have it abundantly. In other words, it’s possible we value different things than they do.
Historically the church understood that divine abundance doesn’t necessarily involve monetary wealth. The kind of abundance Jesus spoke of has a whole lot more to do with the generous outflowing of love and grace from the God who made us and redeemed us than with physical wealth, popularity, and material goods. True abundance involves growing in our relationship with the God who made us and growing in Christlikeness, which involves struggle and sometimes suffering. It involves our participation in a spiritual community which has Christ at the center.
Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor is it a sin to live comfortably in a safe neighborhood where everyone has large homes, big yards, and a swimming pool in the backyard. These blessings provide ample opportunities which would not exist otherwise, and include their own unique set of dangers and temptations. There are benefits and potholes in every walk of life.
Throughout the centuries the church as a whole and individually has at times fallen prey to the subtle deceit of greed in all of its forms. The financial well-being of churches and their leaders sometimes preempts the care of the poor and needy. The health-and-wealth gospel distorts the truth about the Word of God, equating financial and material success and abundance with proof of goodness, success, and godliness. It’s easy for well-blessed Christians to slide into a place of spiritual apathy or an unconscious desire for more and more when all their needs are supplied and they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet. Because of all this, those who are critical of Christians have been well-supplied with ammunition to find fault with us.
But the calling to the Christian church, whether wealthy or poor, still is to preach the gospel to those we encounter on the roads of life. We are to share with others the good news about Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, or in what situation we may find them.
In some ways it can seem easy to preach a meaningful gospel to someone who is starving or homeless. We can offer them what they are needing at the moment and then tell them about Jesus and his love for them. I would imagine it must be much easier to see God’s love in a real way when you are in real trouble and someone offers you love and grace in the midst of it.
It also seems to be much more difficult to preach the gospel and be heard by those who really have no need for God in their lives. When a person is reasonably content with their life, and is able to handle everything they face day by day, God is extraneous to them. In their lives, he really serves no purpose except perhaps to limit them in some way. Or their faith may just be something that is part of their family heritage and really has no personal impact upon their lives.
This is why as I see the material abundance in this country and encounter financially successful people in every walk of life, the question arises in my mind: How in the world do you share the gospel with people who feel no need for it? What do you offer to those who believe they already have all they need or can earn enough to supply it themselves? What if these people are much more generous to the needy and poor than those worshipping in your own church down the street? Why should they care about becoming a Christian when Jesus or those who represent him seem indifferent to them, as well as to those who are suffering or doing without?
The gospel we need to tell must offer something much deeper than just relief from suffering or freedom from sin. The gospel must touch at the core of our humanity. We need to help people personally encounter in Jesus Christ the amazing God who created us and sustains us and who calls us into relationship with himself.
The gospel we offer has great power. It is such good news! In Jesus Christ, we are given the real presence of God in our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and raising us to new life, a life which is at this moment hidden with Christ in God and offered to us right now in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely, there is a deep hunger hidden somewhere in the human heart, longing to hear this good news, no matter how distracted a person may be by their abundance and blessings.
And so, we pray. We serve. We love. We pray and care for each and every person we meet, helping them see God is offering them the same gift which was given to us. And we trust in God’s good time, he will enable them to encounter the truth of their need for him, and the wonder of his precious gift of life in Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love and for all the abundant blessings we receive from you. Thank you for the gift of both prosperity and poverty, for in the midst of each of these we can come to know you and learn to trust you more. May we always be on guard against greed and indifference, and freely share with others all you have provided for us, through Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.’” Luke 12:15 NASB
“For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:3-8 NASB
By Linda Rex
This morning one of the members, Pat, and I were outside painting a sign at the church. The sun was slowly rising and the intensity of its heat was increasing as we worked to finish our project. Several people who live in the neighborhood passed by, either jogging or walking their dogs, and we said hello. Nearly all of them were friendly and responded cordially. It really was a pleasant day to be in the neighborhood.
I have been a pastor with Good News Fellowship for just about five years now, and this neighborhood has changed tremendously within that short period of time. A common sight are houses being torn down and new, multiple dwellings being put in their place. The neighborhood is in the midst of a gentrification process, yet in spite of all this change, neighbors are starting to get to know one another and look out for one another. And they are vocal about their desire to create and live in a safe, friendly community.
It’s good to see and experience the feeling of community growing around us. This neighborhood has only begun to feel that way to me within the last year or two. Perhaps the neighborhood seems different partly because I am actually in the neighborhood involved in some activity on some day other than Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. And I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the people who live on the street the church is located on, to learn their names and a little bit about them through the neighborhood association and community activities.
We have a few church neighbors who come over and participate in our weekly Community Café free meal. But these are not the neighbors I saw last night or this morning as we worked on the sign. I have met a few of these neighbors at community events or on the street, but not within our church doors. A few may attend other churches in the Nashville community, but most are uninterested in, and even opposed to, organized Christian religion. Christianity is being viewed more and more as the cause of disharmony and disunity rather than being seen as the solution to it.
One of the conversations we find ourselves having as a pastoral team is how we have a wide variety of people we minister to and who worship with us—all races and strata of society—but none of them are from this group of young adults who are moving into the neighborhood. These are talented and educated professionals who reflect a post-Christian mindset. They are very community-minded, but want nothing to do with organized religion. And I believe they have every reason to reject it when I take into consideration everything they have heard or seen about Christians and their churches.
What I have found since I moved to the South is a strong Christian culture in the Bible Belt—even more so than what I experienced while living in the farming country of Iowa. This Christian culture has its strong points and also its drawbacks. Nowadays in our ministry to people in our community I find I’m talking with someone who already has a lengthy experience with church and the Bible, rather than with someone who is biblically illiterate or unchurched. This means in the apostle Paul’s language, when I share the gospel with this person or preach the Word of God to him or her, I am building on another person’s foundation rather than building directly upon Christ himself.
Conversations with people who are churched can be challenging. What people may believe about the Bible or God might be drawn from the teachings of various televangelists or popular authors, and need some serious reassessment due to their lack of a healthy spiritual foundation in Christ himself and his written Word. But other times, some people are so sure they are right about what they believe there is no room for the Word of God to go to work to bring about renewal and transformation. The Spirit’s efforts to heal and restore are hampered by the haphazard building which has already been done on the foundation which may or may not be Jesus Christ.
This complicates our efforts to fully proclaim the gospel of Christ, as Paul puts it. We are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to minister the word of God to those who already have been built on Christ, and also to deconstruct and rebuild those who need to be reconstructed on a healthy foundation. We are utterly dependent upon Christ and his work by the Spirit in any effort to preach the gospel of Christ to anyone, whether believer or not.
Indeed, it’s a real challenge to reach out to those who are unchurched or who are adamantly opposed to church or Christianity in any form. There is only one option left open to us sometimes and it is a good one, actually. What is left for us to do is to share God’s love with each and every person we meet in tangible ways—we begin to be good neighbors to each and every person, sharing life with them, offering them truth and grace—and sharing in word and deed what it means to live in the truth of who God is and who we are in him.
Our challenge as a church congregation is to get out of the pews and get into relationships with our church neighbors. This is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable task for some of us, but it is one which God has placed before us. Yet it is not given without his promises and his real, personal Presence in the Holy Spirit to go with us.
The early church prayed for God to confirm his Word through signs and wonders, and to extend the reach of the gospel. And Jesus, by his Spirit and with his people, did those very things. We are called to pray and to participate in Christ’s ministry to the world. We have not only because we ask not, and because we depend upon ourselves and our efforts instead of upon Christ. I would encourage those who feel the longing for Jesus to grow and heal this world and this community to pray, to ask, and to anticipate God’s generous outpouring of response.
God is not put off by a post-Christian culture. None of this is about Christianity anyway. It is all about each and every person growing up in his or her Christlikeness—of sharing the common relationship we have all been given in Christ by the Spirit with the God who made us in his image to reflect his likeness and to share his love. And our role is to participate in the process and to follow wherever Christ leads us. May we respond to his call to each of us by his Holy Spirit. There is much to be done.
Dear God, thank you for loving each and every person whether or not they know you, or love you in return. I am grateful you are not put off by our refusal to believe, but rather you continue to work unceasingly to change our hearts and minds and to bring us into deep relationship with you in Christ by your Spirit. We long for you to bring spiritual renewal and transformation to our neighborhood so each person can experience the reality of true community. Make it so, Lord, by your Spirit. Give us each the boldness and courage, as well as the opportunities, to share your Words of life and your love with our neighbors. And Holy Spirit, please confirm your Word by the signs and wonders which are appropriate in this day and age, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’” Romans 15:17–21 NIV
by Linda Rex
This week I was reading an article about the recent upswing in homicides which has been happening in our church neighborhood. Although it’s hard to know exactly what is sparking this upswing in these individual events which don’t seem to have any tie to one another, the article made an interesting observation: “…most shootings are not completely random. If you look closely, they’re often fallout of interpersonal conflict that can go back and forth over months or even years.” ( See http://nashvillepublicradio.org/post/homicides-spike-east-nashville-precinct-its-commander-looks-answers#stream/0 )
Everywhere I look I am beginning to see and sense a deep sense of rage underlying people’s response to politics, relationships, and even stopping too long at a red light. It seems to me that we are growing into a generation who do not know how to have healthy relationships or how to handle conflict in healthy ways. It’s so much easier to defriend someone on Facebook than to have a difficult conversation in which healthy limits are set and respected by each person involved.
But there is a reality we cannot ignore and it is that in spite of all our efforts to create an orderly, safe society, we cannot create one by simply legislating right behavior and enforcing laws. I believe there is a fundamental disconnect between our desire to be free individuals who can make our own choices and live our own agenda, and the reality of living in community. This is because living in loving, respectful community requires a change in our being, not just in our doing. And that is the issue.
We have, whether we want to admit it or not, an inner drive to be our own masters and in control of what we do and don’t do. We also want to be free to live uninhibited by rules or the control of another human being—unless of course, giving that control over to another person allows us to feel in control of our safety and peace. We want to be free to do what we want, when we want, how we want, without God (if we believe there is one) or anyone else telling us otherwise.
The problem with this type of freedom and control is, we live in a world with millions of other people who also have this same desire for freedom and control. When one person’s desires and plans clash with another’s—we have conflict. When one group’s agenda clashes with another group’s agenda, we end up with war. And this is not what we were created for.
Such an intense desire to be free and rulers over our own lives is not necessarily an evil thing in and of itself. In many ways it is a reflection of the God in whose image we were created. God has given us this world and our lives to be responsible for—they are ours to care for, use responsibly, and to share with others. And we need to be doing those things. And God, in his being, is fully and completely free. We reflect that.
But we need to realize God’s freedom is not the type of freedom we believe we were created with and for. This is a different kind of freedom from just doing what you want, when you want, and how you want. God’s freedom is held within his real existence as a Being who lives in other-centered love. The Word of God who came into our human flesh revealed to us a God who is Father, Son and Spirit and who lives in a relationship of equality, diversity and unity which the church fathers would later call circumincession or perichoresis.
These are interesting terms. The first one, circumincession, was used to express an ongoing movement of pouring out from one into another and receiving in return. If we were to give this some consideration, we would realize we as human beings, made in the image of this God, were designed to be other-centered persons who live in a constant existence in which we pour out from ourselves into others so we may receive that which is poured out into us. This constant pouring out and receiving is a movement which exists within true loving community.
A misguided sense of personal freedom shortcircuits true community. When a person turns away from those around them and seeks only to receive and not to give, this kills healthy relationship. The natural give and take which should occur between people cannot because there are walls between them, or there is abuse, neglect, indifference—you name it. We do all these things to one another because we are broken. And we find ourselves unable or unwilling to live together with others in the mutual submission, the compassion and understanding, and the mutual giving and receiving we were created for.
In my opinion, we do not need more rules to live by. Rules just create in us a desire to break them or to beat other people over the heads with them. We don’t need more legislators or enforcers. What we need is to realize and live out the truth of what God meant for us to be from the beginning. We need a deep realization of who we are, and whose image we were created to reflect, and to begin to live out of this center or core in our being.
God created us with good hearts, to live in loving relationship—this is the truth of our being. When we don’t live in this way, we are miserable and we make everyone around us miserable too. It seems we choose to live in misery, and God knew that wasn’t what we were created for. So he came himself in Jesus and allowed us to dump on him all the rage and evil of our broken humanity. And in doing so, he restored our broken humanity.
God’s purpose in allowing what we did to Jesus was to provide each one of us with the capacity for true humanity again. God gives us through his Son Jesus and by his Spirit what we really need—a change of heart and mind. We need a change of being which will drive a change in our doing. We need to be transformed by grace. So God in Jesus Christ made a way.
When a person comes to themselves—i.e. realizes they are not living as they were created by God to live, and not being the person they were created by God to be—it is a humbling experience. And I think God intends us to come to this place over and over in our lives, not so we can beat ourselves up, but so that we will face our need for him to heal, transform and renew us, and so we will invite him to enter in and begin to create in us anew the capacity for true, healthy relationship with God and with the people in our lives.
This is the whole purpose of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Spirit creates true community among all people, because all people have been included in Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. The Spirit can be resisted, rejected, and even quenched, but this gentle Dove works diligently to resolve differences, to renew relationships and to heal wounded hearts. The Spirit can be invited to stay or be ignored. Either way, the Spirit is still present and at work—it is our experience of God’s presence which is unfelt or felt.
When we open ourselves to the Spirit’s work, we experience the reality that Christ is here in the midst of us, drawing each and every one us together into loving community. I am more and more convinced each day what we really need in our neighborhood, and throughout our world, is for God by his Spirit to breathe new life into each of us.
Darkness and evil will continue to resist the Spirit of life and truth. But in time Light will drives away the darkness, for darkness is merely the absence of light. Those who live and walk in the Light of God’s love and grace need to be willing to share in the sufferings of Jesus—for truth and grace are always resisted in some way. May we have the strength and wisdom to continue to demonstrate in a real way in spite of resistance and opposition what it means to live in loving community, and to suffer for the sake of love and grace, through Jesus our Lord, and by his Spirit.
Abba, thank you for the gift of your love, truth and grace. Thank you for rescuing us from evil, sin and death through your Son Jesus, and for sending us your Spirit so we could begin to recognize and experience true community. We pray you will breathe your Life into our neighborhood and indeed our world so we can live once again in the love and fellowship we were created for. Drive out the darkness with your Light. Enable us to experience the truth of the perichoretic life we were created for. In your Name Jesus we pray. Amen.
“You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Eph 4:20–24 NASB
When I was growing up, I learned at an early age that God had rules for everything. He decided what I could eat and what I could not eat, when I could eat certain foods and when I couldn’t. He decided what I should wear and what I shouldn’t wear, and when certain things should be worn and when they shouldn’t. In fact, it seemed as though God was making sure I did everything exactly right so he could bless me and I could be happy, or punish me if I went astray.
I suppose, looking back, there was something helpful about having some order to my existence. But I realized early on I had an inner resistance to this constant dictation as to what I had to do or not do. There was a rebellion deep within me to being controlled in this manner. And of course, this was seen as being sinful and evil. I did a lot of repenting and I worked really hard at “being good.”
The irony in all of this was I wasn’t made any better or any worse by all this effort. If anything, I was so busy putting on my appearance of having my life in order, I was missing out on real life—real relationship with God and with others. It was only in those relationships where I dropped the façade—with my high school buddies, for example—and where I was genuine and transparent I actually experienced true communion with others. The rest was just pretense.
When God finally got through to me with the reality of his grace and Who he actually was for me, with me and in me, I realized I was one of those people Jesus quite adamantly criticized when he was here on earth. I was a Pharisee—a white-washed tomb—a viper in the woodpile.
To come to the realization that you have all the glitz but none of the reality is a painful, difficult process. It takes experiencing the loss of all the things you cherish and coming to the end of all the things you count on to carry you through and to make you “good enough.” It means discarding all your previous notions about Who God is and who you are as his creature. And this is a tough road to travel, because our humanity and the culture we live in encourage us to stay where we are—in the façade.
One of the things I had to learn about God was he is truly free—free to be Who he is, apart from my expectations of him or preconceived notions about him. He is free to do whatever he wants in this world—which is often the exact opposite of how I was taught and believed he would act in certain situations. God is free to be Who he is, not Who I think he is. The Lord of the universe is truly that—Lord—and I am not (shockingly enough!).
But that freedom God has is always tempered by his boundless, deep love, which surpasses our comprehension. The God I grew up with was punitive and angry. And it was not helpful my personal experience of a father reinforced this belief in many ways. But when God revealed himself to me in Christ by the Spirit, I came to see this wasn’t Who God really was. The God of grace and love has always loved me and you and meant for us to be included in his divine life. This is amazing!
The other amazing thing is God gives each of us freedom—freedom to choose, to embrace or reject him, to live in harmony and unity with him and others, or to live in opposition to everything which is good and honorable and to experience the consequences of living in that way. It is hard to image God doing that, but he did and he does. Freedom to live in loving communion with him and each other, or not—it’s as simple as that.
One of the topics which kept coming up last night at a social gathering I attended was the way each of us has a unique history or genesis, but we are all intertwined and interrelated in some way. Indeed, it seems a person cannot assume someone they do not like is not at all connected with them because we have, as the centuries have passed, intermingled our DNA with one another. We are all bound together in a common humanity.
The joys of fellowship and community are a consistent thread throughout human existence. And this is what we seem to cherish most about our family and community celebrations such as Christmas. At the core of our being, we are drawn to one another in ways we don’t even realize—we are created for community and so we are drawn to it as a part of our very being.
This type of loving community, this interweaving of lives with one another in harmony and grace and peace, cannot be built by making rules and enforcing them. This is a work of the Spirit which takes place in the heart. God does not control us or force us into relationship with him and others, but invites us, draws us close, and compels us by his deep, perfect, and gracious love.
I pray you will each experience the blessing of true spiritual community this Christmas in many ways in your lives. I pray your families will experience healing and comfort and encouragement in the midst of all which pulls us apart and divides us. And I pray you will have a blessed and wonderful Advent season, through Jesus, our Lord, and by his Spirit. Amen.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1–3 NASB