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
There is a sawblade hanging on the wall upstairs with the picture of a goldfish swimming around in a bowl. The text I wrote on the picture when I was done drawing it with colored pencils was: “No more privacy than a goldfish.” It seemed to fit.
Over the years this sawblade has hung in various places in my different homes. It is always a reminder to me of the annoying reality that in some ways, we all live in the spotlight of others opinions and observations. Those of us in positions of leadership, whether in our home, work, or community, have to effectively handle being under the scrutiny of all sorts of people, knowing we influence others by what we say and do.
Take for example, poor Punxsutawney Phil. This famous groundhog is minding his own business, probably taking a long comfortable snooze in his den. He wakes up and wanders outside, and the next thing you know someone has grabbed him and all these photographers are taking snapshots. And whether he likes it or not, his shadow is said to forecast six more weeks of winter, the thought of which makes many people unhappy.
The truth is, no matter how hard we try to hide, we will at some point be exposed to the light of day. No matter how dark the night may be, in the end the earth will turn just enough the sun will shine on us again. No matter how gloomy our prospects, there is hope.
I believe there is a reason God ordained that the sabbath and holy days he gave his people Israel began in the evening. Each day began with rest during the darkness, which culminated with a new day of life. When the Word of God arrived on the scene, he showed up in the middle of the night, when it was dark. It was the entrance of God himself into our humanity, into our cosmos, which turned our night into a bright new morning.
Indeed, this motif is carried into Jesus’ last moments on the cross. There was some concern he would not be dead before sundown—the Jews didn’t want to be messing with anything like this when they were to be resting and observing a holy time. As the evening darkness approached, though, Jesus neared death. And then the sky darkened, and Jesus felt the full impact of our sense of our alienation and lostness.
Jesus went down into the depths of death—the blackness which has hovered over us since Adam and Eve’s missteps in the Garden of Eden. He experienced the full impact of our suffering and willingly bled and died. He was not overcome by death or darkness or evil. No, he entered into it, and then turned it on its head.
This shows the incredible love and compassion of our God who is Light. The Light entered our darkness. For him, our darkness was not a problem, because he was and is the Light—darkness does not impact him or alter him—he is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Light and dark in this world only exist in and through him. Even evil has its existence only in what some call the permissive will of God. It is only by God’s grace such things continue.
So, we see Jesus was laid in a tomb, buried just as every other human is in some way upon death. He laid in the grave—the ultimate blackness and darkness we tend to fear as humans. But the grave could not and did not hold him. The next scene of the story shows the light of a new day dawning, and the stone rolled away from the tomb. We see the living Jesus speaking to his disciples and eating with them.
Whatever darkness we may face in this life, it is swept up into this darkness which Jesus experienced. Whatever death may come about in our lives is now a sharing in Christ’s death. Whatever dark moments we find ourselves in are a participation in those dark, bleak moments Jesus experienced in Gethsemane, on the cross, and in the tomb. No doubt, Jesus experienced just about every form of darkness we as human beings experience—being rejected and forsaken by his friends and family, being hated by the people who should have welcomed and embraced him, and being abandoned in his darkest hour by those who promised to be with him.
The miracle of Jesus’ ability to see in the dark was based in his eternal perichoretic relationship with his Abba in the Spirit. Jesus had true night vision. Our darkness was not too dark for him to enter—but rather the very place he came to in order to draw us up into the Triune relationship of love and life. Jesus dove into the blackness to rescue us from “the domain of darkness” and to transfer us to his kingdom as Abba’s beloved Son. (Col. 1:13 NASB)
Often our inability to see in the darkness, in the night of our brokenness in this world of shadows is because we are spiritually blind. We need to come to Jesus, like the blind men in Matt. 20:33 and say with them, “Lord, we want our eyes to be opened.” Jesus’ compassion is great, and he wants us to be able to see—he wants us to have true sight, especially in the dark night of our soul.
Too often we think we are seeing when in reality we are blind. We need Jesus to clear our eyes up so we can truly see as we ought. We need to guard against allowing ourselves to be deceived into thinking we are living and walking in the light, filled with the light of Jesus by the Spirit, when we are actually dwelling in and soaking up the darkness of unbelief. (Luke 11:33-36) Are we walking by faith or by sight?
What we can forget sometimes is, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, God is present and aware. Whatever we are experiencing in our lives, Jesus is intimately aware of and sharing in by the Spirit. We are not alone. Like the goldfish in a bowl, God sees everything about us, in us, and with us. He knows us down to our core and has shared it all with us in Jesus. He is present by his Spirit in every moment and in every situation. We are never left alone in the dark.
Abba, thank you for not leaving us alone in our darkness. Thank you, Jesus, for coming here and penetrating our darkness, overcoming it by your marvelous light. May you by your Spirit give us perfect night vision—the ability to see what is real and true: the great and never-ending, all-encompassing love and grace of you, our glorious God, and to know you are always in us, with us, and for us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.’” Psalm 139:11-12 NIV
By Linda Rex
Last night my daughter and I crammed ourselves into the bathroom under the stairs along with our disaster essentials. Every time we left the room thinking the danger was past we would hear the tornado siren go off again. So back into the bathroom we would go.
The air conditioning went out earlier this week so we were getting pretty hot and steamy in our little cramped place. While I tried to cram some more from the commentaries for Sunday’s sermon, Eva started watching “Man from Snowy River” on her laptop. I love the scenery and music on the movie like she does, so I had a hard time concentrating on what I was doing. The movie then prompted conversation on all sorts of topics, even leading us to watch and listen to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke sing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” (Yes, I just looked it up to make sure I spelled it correctly.)
Even though I was pretty tired from lack of sleep, I was super grateful this morning to find we came away from the storm without any damage to our property. But I was sorry to see others were not quite so fortunate.
As I was reflecting on all this, I realized I don’t want anyone to have to struggle or suffer yet these are golden opportunities for the beauty of God’s love and grace to shine through. When these dangerous and difficult times come into our lives, they have a tremendous potential for building interdependence and for fostering deeper relationships with the people in our lives.
I remember many years ago up in Iowa when an ice storm shut down our power for over 24 hours. Yes, we were cold—it was in the teens outside. But we were blessed with a propane furnace in the basement from which the heat rose to the first floor, keeping the house about 50 degrees. We snuggled in blankets in the warmest place we could find in the house and played Monopoly by candlelight. The fun and sharing in the midst of our struggle is what I remember most about that disaster.
Now, I can think of other disasters which were devastating to me and my family financially or otherwise which we did not handle as well. What I have found is the difference lies in our ability to realize and believe the presence and power of God is with us in the midst of whatever is happening. When we have the peace of knowing and believing we are held in God’s love and care, there is a sense of rest and freedom which accompanies our trust in him.
It’s as though the Holy Spirit just pours over us a deep sense of calmness and even joy in the midst of the pressing circumstances. This doesn’t mean we are floating around on some false fairy cloud, but rather, in the midst of this place where evil is occurring, we have a sense there is a deeper mystery at work—one in which the Spirit is in the process of taking all this and turning it into something worthwhile, meaningful, and worthy of praise. And we can join in this mystery by trusting in the faithful love and grace of our God who is mightier than any evil force which may come against us.
Granted, sometimes the disasters which strike us are so evil and so devastating we are left numb and immobilized. We are so deeply wounded in these moments our response is anything but trusting and hopeful—especially when we are hit repeatedly by overwhelming events.
In these moments, it is important to lean on those in our lives who can lift us up by trusting in our place. They can pray when we have no words left. They can help us through one more day when we don’t know what we’re going to do next. And this is the calling of the body of Christ in Jesus’ command we love one another. This is the work the Spirit does in and through community in the midst of disaster and suffering.
Too many of us shut ourselves off from, or live and act in ways which destroy, meaningful relationships in our lives. And then we are left high and dry when we need someone to come alongside and help us. Sometimes merely circumstances which are out of our control cut us off from relationships which would normally offer us support, help and encouragement in the midst of suffering. In either of these situations, it would be helpful to know there are people willing and able to come alongside us to offer their assistance in spite of our failures or our circumstances.
I was looking at some of the reports on what was happening in Texas and Louisiana, and soon I was seeing pictures of people helping one another. Such physical acts of mercy and kindness crossed all relational borders. The compassion and caring of one human being for another and for animals and the environment was wonderful to see. This is the heart of Abba expressed in and by these people whether they realize it or not.
No matter how powerful evil and evildoers may get, I do not believe they can ever surpass the power of God’s presence and love expressed through human beings for one another and for the environment in which we live. Sometimes it may seem as though evil is winning. But I have learned we tend to see most clearly what we look for. If we only pay attention to the evil going on around us, I believe we may miss the kindness and goodness of God which is at work all around us in this world, especially since it often takes a different form from what we expect and it often works behind the scenes in invisible ways.
My heart and prayers go out to all those carrying an unbearable burden today. May you find in the midst of your suffering and difficulty the resilience to try one more time and to take one more step. May you be surrounded with caring, supportive people. And may you know beyond a shadow of doubt, you are loved and you are held in the unsurpassable love and grace of God.
Abba, thank you for remembering each and every person who is struggling today. Thank you for opening doors for them. Thank you for providing for their needs. Thank you for healing their wounds. And thank you for surrounding them with people who will protect them, love them, comfort them, help them, and challenge them. We know you hold each and every one of them in your love and grace through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple. For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle; in the secret place of His tent He will hide me; he will lift me up on a rock. And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me, and I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord.” Psalm 27:4–6 NASB
By Linda Rex
I think the story of St. Patrick is a fascinating one. I never knew until a few years ago I could read his writings and learn quite a bit about this man in the process (for example, go to: https://archive.org/details/writingsofsaintp00patr). In his writings, we see a man just like you and me, who struggled in his relationship with God, in his own personal life, and in coming to know what it meant to follow Christ and to live this out in a pagan culture in which his life and well-being were always at risk.
In my life, years ago, the March 17th holiday celebrating his life was lumped, along with many others, into the category of pagan holidays. I have since made the effort to learn the story behind the observation of this day, and most specifically, the story of St. Patrick’s life and service to God in spreading the Trinitarian gospel of love. I’ve come to see there is something to be said for pausing in the midst of our life to reflect on the beauty of the Trinity, and to once again embrace our calling to lay it all down so others may know God as he really is.
What struck me about St. Patrick’s life was not just the suffering he went through as a slave among the Celtic people who stole him from his home. Rather, what really hit home was the choice he made later in life when he was free and at home with his family, to leave it all behind and go back to the Celtic people who had so disrupted his life, so they could hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This resembles so much what the apostle Paul wrote when describing the ministry of God to us in his Son:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5–8 NASB)
When we think about the Word of God, who was God and who was With God, who lived eternally in this inner relation of interpenetrating love and mutual submission, we must realize at some point, God had all he needed—he was at perfect peace, in perfect joy, in such glory and splendor there was no reason for the Word of God to come to this far country, to enter our darkness and blackness, except—love. There is no other possible motivation for doing such a thing—but this is what Jesus said he did: “For God so loved the world he gave…” The Father’s love was so great, even the Father was part of the coming of the Word into our broken, fallen cosmos.
I remember as I first read the story of St. Patrick, I was horrified by the experiences he went through in his simple effort to love God and to share the truth of God’s love for us in Jesus. Why would anyone choose to go through such experiences? Apart from the love of God placed in their hearts, they wouldn’t. It is only the love of God himself which could enable us to give so freely in the midst of such danger, hostility and abuse. The freedom to give one’s life completely in this way is a participation in the freedom of God to give himself completely to us, to humanity, even when he knew it meant he would experience suffering and death at our hands.
This has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks—just how much do we as comfortable, well-fed, well-dressed, well-employed people of any nation, creed or language, express this same willingness to set aside the benefits and comforts of our lives for the sake of sharing the love of God in Christ with those who are caught in the darkness of evil, poverty, suffering and grief? Does it break our hearts that others around us do not know who God really is, and that he loves them just as much as he loves us? Do we care enough to do as Jesus did—leave all the blessings for a time so others might experience God’s love?
And yet, this is a struggle for me. What does it mean to truly love another human being? Is it best to just give a hungry person money? Or is it better to help them find a way to feed themselves? Is it best to give someone money for a place to stay for the night? Or is it better to let them experience the consequences of refusing to get sober so they could stay at the mission at night and eventually get a job and own their own home?
Really, what does it mean to leave our comforts so others may find comfort? What does it mean to show and teach our neighbor the love of God in Christ?
We cannot fix other people, but we can sure bring them to Christ and participate with Christ in what he is doing to heal, restore, and renew them. We cannot, and should not, do for others what they should be and could be doing for themselves. Carrying other people’s loads in their place is not healthy for them or for us (Gal. 6:5). And yet, God calls us to be available to help others who are overburdened beyond their ability to bear up (Gal. 6:2), for this reflects God’s heart of love.
Loving others should not arise out of a sense of guilt or shame, but out of a genuine concern and compassion which comes straight from the heart of the Father, through Jesus in the Spirit. It is best to be discerning in our loving of others as ourselves. Loving another person doesn’t automatically mean we give them what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. Loving another person may mean saying no, or telling them the truth in love, or asking them to get the help they need so they can heal, grow or change.
This brings to mind the apostle Paul’s prayer: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9–11 NASB) Prayer and listening to God’s Word to us via the Holy Spirit and the written Word are important parts of knowing what we need to do to love others as ourselves.
We need the grace of God, God’s wisdom, insight and discernment to know how best to share God’s love with others. God gave St. Patrick a call to go to Ireland and he did—but then God also gave him the grace to do the ministry he called him to. We walk by faith, trusting God to guide our footsteps, to give us wisdom in how we love others and tell them the truth about who God is and who they are in Christ. As we keep in tune with the Spirit, God will guide us and teach us how to love each unique person he puts in our path.
Abba, may we each be filled with your heart of love toward those who are caught in darkness, suffering and difficulty. May we be willing to leave our blessings behind as you ask us to and be willing to struggle and suffer and lay down our lives, so others may share in the Triune life and love with us, through Jesus our Lord and by your precious Spirit. Amen.
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” Galatians 6:7–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
Yesterday, as the sun peeked out occasionally from storm clouds and a cool breeze kept us wishing for a jacket, we sat outside the church and talked. Good News Fellowship was stepping out of our comfort zone and had invited the community to stop by for the administration of ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Although no one from the community joined us for this event, or for the Community Ash Wednesday service which followed, it was still a good opportunity for us to reflect on the reality of what Christ has done and is doing in our lives.
As a denomination, in the past we have not celebrated this particular day or tradition. But our pastoral team felt it was an opportunity for us to open our doors and begin to step outside of them, offering others an opportunity to share with us the good news of what God has done and is doing in our lives.
As I studied the common practices for the observation of Ash Wednesday, I was struck by the focus on our humanity—“from dust you came, and to dust you will return”—and by the emphasis on repentance and penitence. As we move into the Lenten season, a season of fasting, prayer and repentance, Ash Wednesday provides a good marker and way of getting us focused on and looking forward to the events of Holy Week and the resurrection of Jesus.
It is a good thing to be reminded we are made from dust and will return to dust. There is a sense of humility which comes from realizing apart from the grace of God, we would have no existence at all. In fact, we only exist because of the love and grace of a God who determined before time began we would share in his glory.
I was reminded, though, that any thought of repentance or penitence needs to be kept within the reality of who God is, who Christ is, and who we are in him. We begin not by gazing at ourselves, our faults and failures, but first at the God who created us and made us his own. This God isn’t focused on our limitations or our weaknesses, but on the relationships he created us for, and on the love he has for us.
One of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday this year was Joel 2:1–2, 12–17. These particular verses leapt out at me: “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.” (Joel 2:12–13 NASB) The prophet Joel placed the call to repentance within the framework of who God is, just as God had described himself to Moses so many centuries before, a God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth (Exodus 34:6-7).
God indeed wants us to own our stuff, to face up to the truth of how we fall short as human beings. But he more importantly, wants us to face up to the truth of who he is—the kind of God who is loving and forgiving, not cruel, condemning and rejecting. In giving us his Son Jesus Christ, God didn’t push us away in our brokenness, but rather brought us close, joining with us in our sin and shame, washing it away, and drawing us into deeper relationship with himself.
In fact, one of the first things which occurred in Jesus’ life after his baptism, when he heard the words of blessing from his Father “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”, was being, in effect, “cast out” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted of the devil. This forty days of fasting and testing, this penitence, was done on our behalf, for our sake. Jesus took the road of repentance we need to take, where we own our stuff and we choose to turn to God in faith rather than make our own way to glory.
As we enter this season of penitence, this Lenten season of reflection on our need for deliverance and salvation, I feel it is essential we begin with the reality of God’s love and mercy rather than just ending with it. Start with owning what is ours—the gift of forgiveness, and love which comes from the heart of our loving Father—as well as his Spirit who works in us our transformation and healing. And in the light of that, we look at our fallenness and need for grace.
When we keep these things in that order, then repentance is not a move toward despair and despondency, but rather a move toward joyful gratitude. We are compelled to say, “Thank you, Lord, for your mercy.” This is why I could not bring myself just to tell people as I administered the ashes “You came from dust and you will return to dust.” For me, it seemed to leave them in the dust in despair—that doesn’t seem to be what God had in mind. Why else would we have Christ at all?
To me repentance is an essential part of our walk as followers of Jesus Christ. We confess our fallenness, our brokenness, our ungodly ways of living and being. But we do it all in the context of the forgiveness which is already ours and available to us in Jesus Christ. We act as if we are forgiven and act as if we are healed. This is why I felt compelled to use these words in the administration of the ashes this year, “You came from dust, and you will return to dust. So thank the Lord Jesus for joining you in your dust and lifting you up to glory.”
Perhaps I will see things differently in the future—God is always working to heal, transform and renew. But in owning our stuff, I believe we not only need to own our fallen and broken ways of living and being, but also the heart of our loving Father who in Christ and by his Spirit says to us, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Owning our stuff means owning the reality we are forgiven, accepted and cherished by the God who calls us his own, and living and acting as though it were true.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the great love which compelled you to not only create us out of the dust of the earth and to breathe your life into us, but to also send your Son to join us in our humanity and to raise us up to live with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace of true repentance and faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
A psalm of David.
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the LORD has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty!
When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time, that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment. For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory.
The LORD says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”
Many sorrows come to the wicked, but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the LORD. So rejoice in the LORD and be glad, all you who obey him! Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!” (NLT)
by Linda Rex
Over the years I have had to learn the difficult lesson that sometimes it pays better to stop being so nice to people. Being nice can actually make things more difficult and painful rather than creating a place of safety and healing for those involved. In fact, being nice can actually cause a dangerous situation to continue which needs to be made right.
But being nice isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, right? God would want us to be nice people wouldn’t he? Isn’t God always a nice God?
And being nice can seem like the Christian thing to do. If someone is a follower of Christ, they will always be nice, right? They will never be mean or unkind. Jesus was always nice, going around healing people and helping people when he lived on earth, wasn’t he? Or was he?
What about when we are parenting our kids? We may want to be a good parent, so we are always kind, and thoughtful, and generous to our kids. We may give them everything they want, and never say anything to correct them, thinking we are being a good parent by doing so. When they get in trouble in school, we may take their side instead of allowing them to experience the painful consequences of bad behavior. But when we do this is it really the most loving and best thing we can do for them?
Parents may find it very difficult to correct their children and to hold them accountable—it just feels heartless to make a child experience the consequences of their bad choices. Putting limits on a child, and enforcing them, and dealing with the accompanying tears and frustration is not a task for the faint of heart. It’s tough being a parent sometimes.
And it may appear that when a person speaks difficult and painful truth, they are being cruel and heartless, when actually they are doing their best to make a bad situation better. Everyone needs someone in their life who won’t just be nice, but who will speak the truth in love.
If you have a friend who will never tell you the truth about your hurtful behavior, are they truly your friend? If your friend is so busy being nice to you they don’t tell you the truth about how insulting and rude you were to someone the other day, are they really doing what is best for you? Are they really loving you with God’s love?
And what about God’s love? We’re all okay with God being a nice God, giving us so many things, and being good to us, as long as he never makes any demands of us and never tells us when we are wrong. We are happy to have a nice God, but not a God who has the right, and the responsibility, to correct us, and to guide and teach us. As long as God stays on his side of the universe and leaves us alone, but makes sure our life is happy and blessed, we like God.
But I’m not so sure God is a nice God. I’m more inclined to believe God is a loving, compassionate God who has a passion for his children becoming the beautiful, Christlike creatures he initially created us to be. God’s heart toward us is not that our life be easy and convenient, but that we grow up into the fullness of the image of God we were created to bear.
I tend to believe God isn’t as concerned with keeping us happy as he is helping us to be transformed into the image of his Son. Sometimes the process we must go through includes difficulty and pain and suffering. We experience the consequences of our behavior, our words and our choices, and we experience the consequences of the things other people say and do. We experience life in a broken world full of broken people, and this is the crucible in which God forms us into new creatures.
I am a firm believer, though, that there is nothing we go through in this life which God cannot redeem or restore, when and as he so chooses. Those unjust and hurtful things people have done to us or said to us over the years are not ignored by God. In his own time and way, he works to make everything right in the end. In Christ who became sin for us, he takes all these things and redeems them, transforming them into a means for accomplishing his Christ-like perfection in our character and way of being.
We can participate in this process of renewal and restoration by allowing God to use our brokenness and pain as a means of helping others to heal and be restored. We respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives to heal us and comfort us, and then we turn to others who are suffering and in pain, and share with them the gift which God has given us.
Sometimes healing requires the painful process of removing what is causing the pain—surgery is sometimes necessary in order for healing to occur. This can be true even with regards to our emotional pain. What we do not deal with, we carry around with us, and it often causes difficulty for those around us. So we need to own our stuff, and face it, and get help with it if need be. This is why we have counselors and other people God has gifted to help us with emotional, mental and spiritual struggles and wounds. These are people who will tell us the difficult things we need to hear, while listening to the horrendous things we need to say.
In other words, we need people in our lives who aren’t so much interested in being nice as they are interested in helping us be whole. We need friends or companions on our journey through life who are real, genuine, honest and compassionate. We don’t need people who are nice all the time, but rather who are willing to take the risk of speaking the truth in love, and standing by us when life gets tough. And not only do we want to have these types of people in our lives, but these are the kind of people God is calling us to be.
As parents, we can be people who are more interested in our children growing up to be honest, faithful, compassionate, and genuine people, than keeping them happy and not ever disappointing them. As parents, we can allow our children to suffer, to grieve, and to struggle, while at the same time, helping them to bear up under what they are not able to bear on their own. We can encourage them to take risks rather than taking all their risks for them in their place. We can do things alongside them in such a way that eventually they are able to do them on their own without our help—and this may mean allowing them to struggle and fall down in the process.
In other words, we will all be healthier people, with healthier friends and families, if we would stop being so nice and start being truly loving. We are able to do this because this is the nature of God in us—the God who is so genuinely loving he was willing to join us in our mess and become one of us. This God who lives in us by his Spirit is the God who confronted evil and sin in sinful man by taking our broken humanity upon himself and redeeming it. God was too nice to be nice to us—he became sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God in him.
This God by the Spirit tells us what it looks like to live in true spiritual community. He tells us to avoid living in ways which are hurtful to others, and names what those are in his Word. He by the Spirit enables us to have the courage to speak the truth in difficult situations, and to handle the meltdown which occurs when we directly address unhealthy behaviors and words. This God, who may not always seem to be nice is the God who is Christ in us, and who enables us to stop being nice and to start being truly loving and compassionate in how we live and what we say.
Thank you, God, for not being nice to us—for not allowing us to continue in our broken and unhealthy ways of living and being. Thank you for joining us in our humanity, and forging for us a new humanity which reflects your divine life and love. Grant us the grace to respond to your transforming work and to stop being nice, and start being truly loving and giving–in your name, Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.” 1 Jn 4:7–9 NASB