By Linda Rex
My officemate and I were sitting at our desks one day. The whole atmosphere of the day had been pretty gloomy, with dark, cloudy skies, and endless buckets of rain. We both agreed it was a really good day for curling up with a blanket on the couch to read a good book.
Curling up in a chair or on the couch with a book and an apple was something I used to do a lot when I was younger. I loved reading—it was the way I escaped the boredom and unpleasantness in my life. I would bring home a stack of books from the library, and within a day or two, I would have read them all completely through. The books took me to worlds I would never visit in real life, and helped me learn things I would never learn in school or at home.
Somehow dark and rainy days always remind me of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. I haven’t figured out why, but I’m pretty sure it was a comfort food which my mom used to serve us when I was little. She would make homemade bread into patties, cut them open and put butter and honey on them—mmm. She had a lot of special foods she would serve us—she loved fussing over us in this way.
If we were to think about it, we could come up with a list of things we learned to do as children which give us comfort. As we’ve gotten older, the comfort measures we use can take on new, and sometimes, more dangerous forms. We have boundless opportunities around us to distract us. Nowadays, it’s much easier to escape and find relief in these things than it is to face up to and deal with the unpleasantries and responsibilities of life.
While I’m all for having enjoyable pastimes and comfort foods, I’ve noticed it is really easy to become dependent upon these things and drift away from our sole dependency upon God. Instead of being attentive to the real desires in our hearts for connection, healing, and community, we numb ourselves with distractions and pleasures.
The psalmist, King David, reminds us the only rock and salvation is God alone. He is the only thing or Person we are to place our hope in, because he is the only One who can truly be counted on in every situation. Whether it is rest, comfort, peace, or even our value as human beings—there is only one Place where we are truly and always affirmed, beloved, and held.
Too often our relationship with God is a place of anxiety and distress rather than one of life and peace. Most often, our anxiety and distress is unnecessary, for, as the apostle Paul says, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31b) When our distress and anxiety is valid, it is only because we have not seen God for who he really is—gracious, longsuffering, and kind, but loving enough to hold us responsible for the things we say and do which destroy or break our communion with God and others. Perhaps he is calling us to humble ourselves and turn back to the direction we know in our hearts we should have been going in the first place.
It is important for us to be attentive to what is going on in our hearts and minds, and to not distract ourselves away from it. We need to wrestle with our desires and pain and anger, and to not deny it, numb it, or wish it away. It’s there for a reason. Pain and anger are signals we or our boundaries have been violated. True desire is the heart of God at work in our hearts, calling us to what is holy, pure, and a real reflection of the nature and being of the God who created us in his image.
Truth be told, we live in a society which is filled with distractions. Much as I love my smartphone, I realize it’s capacity for keeping me from dealing with the things which really matter. If I am feeling an ache in my heart regarding my need for connection with God or others, it is easier to flip on the radio in my car than it is to have that meaningful conversation. Rather than dealing with the heartache or worry which is boiling inside, it’s so much easier to flip on my computer and bury myself in a game or a social media site.
But God calls us into relationship with himself and with others. And relationships are a messy business. And relationships require space and listening to hearts.
God also calls us into silence–into quieting ourselves in his presence so we can hear what’s going on in God’s heart and ours. Silence is a spiritual discipline which has been practiced by Christians for centuries. It involves taking time away from all distractions, and opening ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit. Being silent and undistracted means making ourselves fully available to God for inner work he wants to do in our hearts and minds.
Since this can be uncomfortable for us, we need faith–the faith of Christ. Our hope and trust must be fully in the God who created us and holds us in his love. Everything rests on him. And that’s a good thing, for he is the only One who can carry us and sustain us in each and every situation within which we find ourselves.
Dear Abba, you are truly trustworthy and faithful. Thank you for your love and grace in your Son Jesus. By your Spirit, please enable us to wait in silence for you, and to be attentive and obedient to your heart and mind. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“My soul, await in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be shaken. On God my salvation and my glory rest; the rock of my strength, my refuge is in God. Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.” Psalm 139:5-8 NASB
By Linda Rex
Many years ago, I attended a mega church for a while. It was located a little distance from me but provided some important counseling resources which were not available in my neighborhood, nor with the other church I normally attended.
One of the first things I noticed about this church was that nearly every car in the parking lot was only two to three years old and in good condition. I was a little embarrassed to have to park my old clunker next to the shiny minivans and SUV’s, but I did it anyway. As I walked inside the building, the people around me seemed friendly, though preoccupied. They were good folks, and I found it quite easy to melt into the crowd and not have to engage anyone in conversation.
After a few weeks, I became more and more aware of the subtle difference in financial status between me and the other people in the church. Most of the conversations between the people in the study group I joined involved decisions about a second or third car, a summer home, or a long vacation in Hawaii. I did not feel able to contribute anything to these conversations because I was still wondering how on minimum pay I would handle all the bills I had coming due in the next week. It was rather awkward for me, but I was there to study the Word of God with fellow believers, not to wrestle with financial inequities. So I let it go.
As the years have passed I have on occasion experienced more of this disparity between the wealthy church, and the broken community within and without the church who needs helped and healed. I have met and grown to love some pretty amazing people for whom the distress of suffering financially or physically is a foreign concept, or one they have experienced only briefly in their lives.
These people are compassionate and generous, but they can sometimes be completely out of touch with the everyday struggles of the needy. It’s not that they don’t care or are indifferent, but that it’s either not a part of their everyday experience, or they feel it would not be genuinely helpful for them to take on responsibilities which belong to the people who are struggling. And they have a valid point.
The culture we live in today often looks perplexedly at the Christian church, wondering why we are not more helpful to those who are suffering. I have no doubt there is room for us to grow in our generosity and helpfulness towards the poor and needy. But it may be that those who are being critical of us have a skewed view of what it means to have life and to have it abundantly. In other words, it’s possible we value different things than they do.
Historically the church understood that divine abundance doesn’t necessarily involve monetary wealth. The kind of abundance Jesus spoke of has a whole lot more to do with the generous outflowing of love and grace from the God who made us and redeemed us than with physical wealth, popularity, and material goods. True abundance involves growing in our relationship with the God who made us and growing in Christlikeness, which involves struggle and sometimes suffering. It involves our participation in a spiritual community which has Christ at the center.
Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor is it a sin to live comfortably in a safe neighborhood where everyone has large homes, big yards, and a swimming pool in the backyard. These blessings provide ample opportunities which would not exist otherwise, and include their own unique set of dangers and temptations. There are benefits and potholes in every walk of life.
Throughout the centuries the church as a whole and individually has at times fallen prey to the subtle deceit of greed in all of its forms. The financial well-being of churches and their leaders sometimes preempts the care of the poor and needy. The health-and-wealth gospel distorts the truth about the Word of God, equating financial and material success and abundance with proof of goodness, success, and godliness. It’s easy for well-blessed Christians to slide into a place of spiritual apathy or an unconscious desire for more and more when all their needs are supplied and they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet. Because of all this, those who are critical of Christians have been well-supplied with ammunition to find fault with us.
But the calling to the Christian church, whether wealthy or poor, still is to preach the gospel to those we encounter on the roads of life. We are to share with others the good news about Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, or in what situation we may find them.
In some ways it can seem easy to preach a meaningful gospel to someone who is starving or homeless. We can offer them what they are needing at the moment and then tell them about Jesus and his love for them. I would imagine it must be much easier to see God’s love in a real way when you are in real trouble and someone offers you love and grace in the midst of it.
It also seems to be much more difficult to preach the gospel and be heard by those who really have no need for God in their lives. When a person is reasonably content with their life, and is able to handle everything they face day by day, God is extraneous to them. In their lives, he really serves no purpose except perhaps to limit them in some way. Or their faith may just be something that is part of their family heritage and really has no personal impact upon their lives.
This is why as I see the material abundance in this country and encounter financially successful people in every walk of life, the question arises in my mind: How in the world do you share the gospel with people who feel no need for it? What do you offer to those who believe they already have all they need or can earn enough to supply it themselves? What if these people are much more generous to the needy and poor than those worshipping in your own church down the street? Why should they care about becoming a Christian when Jesus or those who represent him seem indifferent to them, as well as to those who are suffering or doing without?
The gospel we need to tell must offer something much deeper than just relief from suffering or freedom from sin. The gospel must touch at the core of our humanity. We need to help people personally encounter in Jesus Christ the amazing God who created us and sustains us and who calls us into relationship with himself.
The gospel we offer has great power. It is such good news! In Jesus Christ, we are given the real presence of God in our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and raising us to new life, a life which is at this moment hidden with Christ in God and offered to us right now in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely, there is a deep hunger hidden somewhere in the human heart, longing to hear this good news, no matter how distracted a person may be by their abundance and blessings.
And so, we pray. We serve. We love. We pray and care for each and every person we meet, helping them see God is offering them the same gift which was given to us. And we trust in God’s good time, he will enable them to encounter the truth of their need for him, and the wonder of his precious gift of life in Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love and for all the abundant blessings we receive from you. Thank you for the gift of both prosperity and poverty, for in the midst of each of these we can come to know you and learn to trust you more. May we always be on guard against greed and indifference, and freely share with others all you have provided for us, through Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.’” Luke 12:15 NASB
“For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:3-8 NASB
By Linda Rex
Recently I got to thinking about how we as Americans, in general, think nothing of being in debt. Nowadays it seems as if owing someone money is an accepted way of life. To not have a credit card is more unusual than having one. I have lost count of how many credit card offers I threw away last month.
When my children were little I remember having one of those money conversations with them. We were wanting to do something together which would have been fun for all of us and which would have been a good thing to spend money on in my opinion. But the money just wasn’t there.
So I was trying to explain to my children how we would need to wait until I had the money for this opportunity. One of my children popped up and said, “Just write a check, Mom.” I explained that in order to write a check I had to have money in the bank to cover the check.
“Just use your credit card,” they said. So I began to explain how with a credit card I would still need to have the money to pay it off when the bill came. This was just one of the many conversations needed to help my children understand that we can’t just have what we want whenever we want it. Sometimes we just have to say no to ourselves and to others.
Being in debt or owing another party for the use of their money has become a way of life for many of us in this country. Borrowing money is how we buy a car or purchase a house. We even borrow money to send our children to college.
Perhaps one of the reasons our country is struggling is because we have ignored the description of life in Christ which says, “Owe no man anything but to love one another.” It would be quite radical if all of a sudden every debt was forgiven and people shared freely with one another rather than expecting payment with interest in return.
This seems rather Pollyanna-ish, doesn’t it?
The breaking in of the kingdom of God in our world often takes on forms such as these. In loving one one another rather than using one another, the kingdom of God receives its full expression. When someone forgives a debt or offers to pay in our place we experience the real presence of the Living Lord. When people freely offer financial and physical help to one another even when it’s not deserved, this manifests Abba’s heart. We’ve seen many illustrations of this in the aftermath of hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes.
To offer mercy rather than just retribution is what our Lord does best. We can trust he is not out to get his share, but instead is sharing with us all which is his. He is not seeking his own, but is seeking our best.
In the midst of the havoc of the storms of our lives, he is not exacting retribution, but is holding us and carrying us, and offering us his strength, comfort, and provision. He puts people in our lives who can and will lift us up, encourage us, and help us to carry the burdens which are too heavy for us.
I would imagine if we were more occupied with serving and loving one another and less with indulging ourselves, we might not only be happier and more at peace, but we might also be a lot more financially sound. If we were more involved in blessing one another rather than using one another, we might find ourselves in an entirely different world.
We can go along and live as we are or we can live as though the kingdom of God has come to us in Jesus. We can live now in the truth of who we are in him. But we must realize this society is uncomfortable with and resists such truth while at the same time embracing the beauty of the possibilities it might brings.
To live in love and debt-free requires a radical life change I’m just beginning to get my mind around. But God-willing, as we embrace Christ’s debt-free life we will be catalysts for change within our debt-laden society.
Abba, forgive us our refusal to live free of all our debts, personal and financial, toward you and one another. Give us the courage to swim upstream against the current and to daily offer grace to one another in and through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8 NASB
By Linda Rex
This morning one of the members, Pat, and I were outside painting a sign at the church. The sun was slowly rising and the intensity of its heat was increasing as we worked to finish our project. Several people who live in the neighborhood passed by, either jogging or walking their dogs, and we said hello. Nearly all of them were friendly and responded cordially. It really was a pleasant day to be in the neighborhood.
I have been a pastor with Good News Fellowship for just about five years now, and this neighborhood has changed tremendously within that short period of time. A common sight are houses being torn down and new, multiple dwellings being put in their place. The neighborhood is in the midst of a gentrification process, yet in spite of all this change, neighbors are starting to get to know one another and look out for one another. And they are vocal about their desire to create and live in a safe, friendly community.
It’s good to see and experience the feeling of community growing around us. This neighborhood has only begun to feel that way to me within the last year or two. Perhaps the neighborhood seems different partly because I am actually in the neighborhood involved in some activity on some day other than Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. And I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the people who live on the street the church is located on, to learn their names and a little bit about them through the neighborhood association and community activities.
We have a few church neighbors who come over and participate in our weekly Community Café free meal. But these are not the neighbors I saw last night or this morning as we worked on the sign. I have met a few of these neighbors at community events or on the street, but not within our church doors. A few may attend other churches in the Nashville community, but most are uninterested in, and even opposed to, organized Christian religion. Christianity is being viewed more and more as the cause of disharmony and disunity rather than being seen as the solution to it.
One of the conversations we find ourselves having as a pastoral team is how we have a wide variety of people we minister to and who worship with us—all races and strata of society—but none of them are from this group of young adults who are moving into the neighborhood. These are talented and educated professionals who reflect a post-Christian mindset. They are very community-minded, but want nothing to do with organized religion. And I believe they have every reason to reject it when I take into consideration everything they have heard or seen about Christians and their churches.
What I have found since I moved to the South is a strong Christian culture in the Bible Belt—even more so than what I experienced while living in the farming country of Iowa. This Christian culture has its strong points and also its drawbacks. Nowadays in our ministry to people in our community I find I’m talking with someone who already has a lengthy experience with church and the Bible, rather than with someone who is biblically illiterate or unchurched. This means in the apostle Paul’s language, when I share the gospel with this person or preach the Word of God to him or her, I am building on another person’s foundation rather than building directly upon Christ himself.
Conversations with people who are churched can be challenging. What people may believe about the Bible or God might be drawn from the teachings of various televangelists or popular authors, and need some serious reassessment due to their lack of a healthy spiritual foundation in Christ himself and his written Word. But other times, some people are so sure they are right about what they believe there is no room for the Word of God to go to work to bring about renewal and transformation. The Spirit’s efforts to heal and restore are hampered by the haphazard building which has already been done on the foundation which may or may not be Jesus Christ.
This complicates our efforts to fully proclaim the gospel of Christ, as Paul puts it. We are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to minister the word of God to those who already have been built on Christ, and also to deconstruct and rebuild those who need to be reconstructed on a healthy foundation. We are utterly dependent upon Christ and his work by the Spirit in any effort to preach the gospel of Christ to anyone, whether believer or not.
Indeed, it’s a real challenge to reach out to those who are unchurched or who are adamantly opposed to church or Christianity in any form. There is only one option left open to us sometimes and it is a good one, actually. What is left for us to do is to share God’s love with each and every person we meet in tangible ways—we begin to be good neighbors to each and every person, sharing life with them, offering them truth and grace—and sharing in word and deed what it means to live in the truth of who God is and who we are in him.
Our challenge as a church congregation is to get out of the pews and get into relationships with our church neighbors. This is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable task for some of us, but it is one which God has placed before us. Yet it is not given without his promises and his real, personal Presence in the Holy Spirit to go with us.
The early church prayed for God to confirm his Word through signs and wonders, and to extend the reach of the gospel. And Jesus, by his Spirit and with his people, did those very things. We are called to pray and to participate in Christ’s ministry to the world. We have not only because we ask not, and because we depend upon ourselves and our efforts instead of upon Christ. I would encourage those who feel the longing for Jesus to grow and heal this world and this community to pray, to ask, and to anticipate God’s generous outpouring of response.
God is not put off by a post-Christian culture. None of this is about Christianity anyway. It is all about each and every person growing up in his or her Christlikeness—of sharing the common relationship we have all been given in Christ by the Spirit with the God who made us in his image to reflect his likeness and to share his love. And our role is to participate in the process and to follow wherever Christ leads us. May we respond to his call to each of us by his Holy Spirit. There is much to be done.
Dear God, thank you for loving each and every person whether or not they know you, or love you in return. I am grateful you are not put off by our refusal to believe, but rather you continue to work unceasingly to change our hearts and minds and to bring us into deep relationship with you in Christ by your Spirit. We long for you to bring spiritual renewal and transformation to our neighborhood so each person can experience the reality of true community. Make it so, Lord, by your Spirit. Give us each the boldness and courage, as well as the opportunities, to share your Words of life and your love with our neighbors. And Holy Spirit, please confirm your Word by the signs and wonders which are appropriate in this day and age, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’” Romans 15:17–21 NIV
By Linda Rex
Last Saturday I held the Sharing God’s Love women’s retreat at my home. It was a small gathering—altogether there were nine of us who participated. I have limited space in my downstairs, so it was a tight squeeze for everyone to have a place to sit, especially around the dining table at lunchtime. But we did it, and I believe we all had a good time together.
We began our event with an icebreaker where we shared some things we didn’t know about each other. Then we moved into contemplative prayer where we invited the Holy Spirit to show us areas in our hearts and lives where God would like to bring healing and transformation. We wrote these things down as God showed them to us.
I talked briefly about the spiritual discipline of inner-healing prayer and how God uses it to bring healing and renewal in each of our lives. I used as a reference the book The Handbook of Spiritual Disciplines by Calhoun. The ladies then split up into pairs and prayed for one another, specifically keeping the concerns in mind God had showed them earlier. I saw tears and heard laughter. It was a moving experience for those involved.
We paused to have lunch together, and then I began the afternoon session. I read Acts 2:42-47 and showed how what we had done so far that day was like what the early church experienced shortly after Pentecost. We had spent time hearing the Word of God, we had prayed together, and had fellowshipped and shared a meal together. They each had received a small gift. The ladies had also each brought an item to the event to give away, and put it in one of the baskets we would be giving away to some of our Community Café visitors in February.
During the afternoon session we continued in the spirit of the early church and created something to give to others. We began making Valentine’s Day cards using some templates and precut items Pat and I had made earlier in the week. Some wrote messages on the cards, others just pasted scriptures and greetings on the cards. It was all a simple project. We ended up with about 65 cards to give away.
We split these cards up between two people. Teresa would be taking some to the nursing home where her mother was, and Valinta would be giving some away at work. Our goal is to have them return and report to the church the way the early apostles would do after a trip sharing the gospel. So, we all gathered hands and prayed for Teresa and Valinta and God’s blessing on their efforts to share the message of God’s love with all those who received the cards. We followed this with communion and a benediction.
We had hosted one of these two years ago at Mercy Convent here in Nashville. That had been quite a different experience since we had the use of the chapel, the porch and the grounds during that event. But no matter the location, gathering together to share in spiritual community in this way is often healing, and creates a sense of refreshment and renewal.
I believe there is something significant which is lost when we do not slow down long enough to experience renewal with others. I’m afraid we are often so busy being individuals with our own plans and agendas, we don’t have time or even the desire to sit and be silent, or to share important parts of ourselves with others who can pray with us and for us, and be a part of helping us to heal and to be renewed.
The irony about this event, in my experience, was what happened afterwards in my own personal life. As a pastor, often we are the ones hosting these types of sessions, and we are not always the participants. Because this is the case, we don’t often experience the renewal others experience while participating in them. We had an uneven number of ladies on Saturday, so when we split into pairs to pray, I sat out. I prayed silently while they were praying, but did not specifically participate in the inner-healing prayer.
Indeed, God had brought a particular thing to my mind during the contemplative prayer session, but I held onto it, thinking the Lord and I would work it out together later. I would have some downtime later, and we would talk about it then. And God did address it with me, but not as I expected.
The next day I had a busy day at church. I not only played keyboard in the band during worship, but I also preached. That is draining enough, but I also had a meeting following the service which I felt was very important. So by the time I left the church building and headed home, this introvert was pretty drained.
I got into the car and started up the road. I vaguely realized I needed gas for the car, so I started looking for the brand of gas I prefer to use. And I just started driving, and driving, and driving. I finally realized I was just driving absentmindedly, and stopped to fill the tank. I had not realized how overcome with grief I was until that moment when I felt I could just keep driving and not look back.
I wasn’t really very far from home, so I went there, parked the car, and called one of my team members. I explained what had happened and asked her to pray for me. And as she prayed, I cried. God had called me into inner-healing prayer in spite of my neglect of it at the retreat. God knew I was grieving and needed to grieve, but also knew I needed to grieve with someone. God works healing within the context of relationships, whether we like it or not.
It’s tough to let go of our rugged individualism and humble ourselves enough to confess our brokenness and need to someone so they may pray for us and we may be healed. But this is what God encourages us to do (James 5:16). This is extremely difficult to do in a culture where such spiritual, emotional intimacy is mistaken for other types of relationships, but it’s what we were created for. God did not intend for us to live as islands—we were created for deep, close, loving relationships with him and with one another.
If I might share this piece of encouragement—find a safe person who you feel you can trust, and who loves the Lord, and ask them to pray with you and for you. Don’t keep your grief, struggles, and brokenness to yourself. If you don’t have one, begin seeking one out, asking God for direction and wisdom. God never meant for you to carry this all alone. And if I might help, I would be more than happy to pray with and for you—just ask.
Abba, thank you for surrounding us with caring people who are willing to pray for and with us when we are in need. Make us more aware of the love which you have placed in our lives—show us how you share your love with us day by day through all the caring relationships we participate in. If we do not have these, then Lord, I pray—shower us with your love. Without you, and without one another, we are truly lost. Thank you for your faithful love, through Jesus and by your Spirit, we pray. Amen.
“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42–47 NASB
When I was growing up, I learned at an early age that God had rules for everything. He decided what I could eat and what I could not eat, when I could eat certain foods and when I couldn’t. He decided what I should wear and what I shouldn’t wear, and when certain things should be worn and when they shouldn’t. In fact, it seemed as though God was making sure I did everything exactly right so he could bless me and I could be happy, or punish me if I went astray.
I suppose, looking back, there was something helpful about having some order to my existence. But I realized early on I had an inner resistance to this constant dictation as to what I had to do or not do. There was a rebellion deep within me to being controlled in this manner. And of course, this was seen as being sinful and evil. I did a lot of repenting and I worked really hard at “being good.”
The irony in all of this was I wasn’t made any better or any worse by all this effort. If anything, I was so busy putting on my appearance of having my life in order, I was missing out on real life—real relationship with God and with others. It was only in those relationships where I dropped the façade—with my high school buddies, for example—and where I was genuine and transparent I actually experienced true communion with others. The rest was just pretense.
When God finally got through to me with the reality of his grace and Who he actually was for me, with me and in me, I realized I was one of those people Jesus quite adamantly criticized when he was here on earth. I was a Pharisee—a white-washed tomb—a viper in the woodpile.
To come to the realization that you have all the glitz but none of the reality is a painful, difficult process. It takes experiencing the loss of all the things you cherish and coming to the end of all the things you count on to carry you through and to make you “good enough.” It means discarding all your previous notions about Who God is and who you are as his creature. And this is a tough road to travel, because our humanity and the culture we live in encourage us to stay where we are—in the façade.
One of the things I had to learn about God was he is truly free—free to be Who he is, apart from my expectations of him or preconceived notions about him. He is free to do whatever he wants in this world—which is often the exact opposite of how I was taught and believed he would act in certain situations. God is free to be Who he is, not Who I think he is. The Lord of the universe is truly that—Lord—and I am not (shockingly enough!).
But that freedom God has is always tempered by his boundless, deep love, which surpasses our comprehension. The God I grew up with was punitive and angry. And it was not helpful my personal experience of a father reinforced this belief in many ways. But when God revealed himself to me in Christ by the Spirit, I came to see this wasn’t Who God really was. The God of grace and love has always loved me and you and meant for us to be included in his divine life. This is amazing!
The other amazing thing is God gives each of us freedom—freedom to choose, to embrace or reject him, to live in harmony and unity with him and others, or to live in opposition to everything which is good and honorable and to experience the consequences of living in that way. It is hard to image God doing that, but he did and he does. Freedom to live in loving communion with him and each other, or not—it’s as simple as that.
One of the topics which kept coming up last night at a social gathering I attended was the way each of us has a unique history or genesis, but we are all intertwined and interrelated in some way. Indeed, it seems a person cannot assume someone they do not like is not at all connected with them because we have, as the centuries have passed, intermingled our DNA with one another. We are all bound together in a common humanity.
The joys of fellowship and community are a consistent thread throughout human existence. And this is what we seem to cherish most about our family and community celebrations such as Christmas. At the core of our being, we are drawn to one another in ways we don’t even realize—we are created for community and so we are drawn to it as a part of our very being.
This type of loving community, this interweaving of lives with one another in harmony and grace and peace, cannot be built by making rules and enforcing them. This is a work of the Spirit which takes place in the heart. God does not control us or force us into relationship with him and others, but invites us, draws us close, and compels us by his deep, perfect, and gracious love.
I pray you will each experience the blessing of true spiritual community this Christmas in many ways in your lives. I pray your families will experience healing and comfort and encouragement in the midst of all which pulls us apart and divides us. And I pray you will have a blessed and wonderful Advent season, through Jesus, our Lord, and by his Spirit. Amen.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1–3 NASB