community

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

Living in the Dance

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By Linda Rex

Advent—LOVE
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

Sharing the Gospel Amid Abundance

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By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebuilding the Foundation

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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

The Death and Renewal of Community

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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

The Path of Peace

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christmas_lights_clipby Linda Rex

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

Sharing the Gift of Thanksgiving

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tn-hayfield

by Linda Rex

As I was driving through the Tennessee countryside this morning, I was soaking up the inherent beauty of the fall colors in the leaves of the trees and the deep blue of the clear sky. There is such a sense of God’s presence and nearness in his creation, especially when the plants, trees, animals and earth are just being who they were created to be. And how cool it is that we, as human beings and God’s creatures, get to be a part of reflecting God’s glory!

Last night I participated in a discussion at the Highland Heights Neighborhood Association meeting in which we talked about being aware of and sensitive to the needs of the people in the community who are marginalized and forgotten. In the light of this, as a neighborhood group working to improve our community, we asked the question, “Where do we go from here?” and “What can we do to help?”

Truthfully, there are people down the street from our church who live every day in such poverty and squalor they are not able, even if they wished, to soak up the beauty of the Tennessee countryside. They live in housing which is uninhabitable by modern standards, and have little hope for anything better. How, in the midst of the struggle of daily life, can they enjoy the best of life? What does it mean for them to just be who they were created to be? Is it even possible for them?

And indeed, how are they any different from you or me? They have this existence they have found themselves in and they, like you and me, seek to do the best they are able to along the way, trying to find and create life in the midst of death and poverty and struggle. They, like we do, breathe the same air, need the same food and water we do, and long to love and be loved, for that is what they, like we, were created for.

It would be easy to say, for example, that a particular group of people being considered last night as being in need were not part of our neighborhood therefore not a part of our responsibility. But indeed, we must never forget we are neighbor to each and every person in this world in our Lord Jesus Christ. In him we are connected at the center of our being to every other person who exists, no matter whether we like them or not. There is a core relatedness which Jesus Christ created in us and in himself which demands we treat each other as brothers and sisters, not as strangers or aliens.

And this is hard to do, because we as human beings are broken. We have addictions, mental and emotional and physical illnesses, and quirks which make us unpleasant people to be around. We have character flaws which sometimes make it unsafe for others to be around us. We have generational and personal habits and ways of being and talking which do not line up with who we are created to be in Jesus Christ, and they divide us from one another.

This morning I was looking at some photos from around the world taken over the last year which illustrated something significant which happened on that particular day. Most of the photos told the story of people in the midst of struggle—of war, refugees, destruction, natural disasters—all the ways in which people were wrestling with their desire for life in the midst of death and loss. Here and there was a picture of someone celebrating or worshiping, but they were few and far between.

It seems, apparently, struggle is a part of the human existence, whether we like it or not. Poverty, displacement, homelessness, and war plague us no matter where we live. Jesus said at one point, “…You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:8 NLT). There is a reality about our human existence and it is we do not live as we ought and we do not treat others as we ought, and so people end up living in ways they were never meant to have to live. Our human existence today is a reflection of how we seek to find life in the ways which only create destruction and death, and of how our earth is broken and reflects the harm we humans have done to it over the centuries.

It is no wonder the youth of our day sometimes feel a sense of despair and hopelessness. What kind of future do they have to look forward to? And what about our marginalized neighbors who expect to only see more of the same in the years ahead? What hope do they have?

I believe this is where we run into a fundamental flaw in our thinking as Christians. We see all this and can say, things are so bad we must be near the end of the world, so Jesus is going to come and punish all the bad people and establish his kingdom. This conveniently places everything back into the hands of an angry God who will deal with all this stuff so we don’t have to. It removes any need for us to encounter and deal with on a face-to-face basis the suffering of our neighbor right now, today, in our everyday lives.

I thought it was instructive last night that the heads more than once turned towards our end of the table and it was indicated that the churches in the neighborhood were expected to do something about the problems in the neighborhood. At the NOAH meeting, I heard the city officials say the non-profit organizations were the ones who ought to be solving the homelessness problem. Why do communities turn to God’s people with the needs of those who are homeless and poverty-stricken rather than to the government? What is it they believe we have and can do which cannot be found elsewhere?

At this point, I’m not really sure. But I do know this—when God goes to work in a human heart and mind, things change. When God goes to work in a community, things change. When God goes to work in a family, a church, an office or a city, things change. And one of the biggest changes to occur is a change in human hearts and minds.

It seems at times God doesn’t care as much about the poverty of our circumstances as he does about the poverty of our soul. The path to new life is through suffering and death, whether we like it or not. When he goes to work though, as hearts and minds are healed and renewed, circumstances in peoples’ lives change as well.

We as Christians need to realize the magnitude of what we bring to the table in the situations we face in our neighborhoods and in our world. We may have no power to fix the problems faced directly. But we do have the power of prayer and the community of faith. We do have the ability to walk with people through their times of darkness and to share with them the Light of life. We do have the ability to ease their suffering in some ways, even though in other ways we are impotent in being able to help.

The greatest thing we can do for others is to offer them a relationship of love and grace in which Jesus Christ is the center. We can come alongside others and share in the divine Paraclete’s ministry of counsel, intercession and comfort. We can share with others the blessings we have received from Abba so they may also experience the joy of thanksgiving as we do. We can work to help others to be and become those people God created them to be, so they may begin to enjoy the best of life, which is living in loving community with God and one another.

This is my heart and desire for the people of Tennessee, and for all people, for that matter. And I know it is also the heart and desire of our members at Good News Fellowship. We have been given our Abba’s heart of love and grace and we want to share it with others. We want all people to be overwhelmed just as we are with the overflowing joy of thanksgiving for our Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have given us true life in their presence both now and forever.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness, and for drawing us to yourself by your Son and in your Spirit, so we each and all may participate with you in a communion of love and grace both now and forever. Renew in us your heart of love and grace so we may love others with your perfect love and forgive as we are forgiven. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” Colossians 1:9–12 NASB