darkness

Why Surrender is Hard

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By Linda Rex

There is something unsettling about realizing you are not in control of your circumstances or the people in your life. This inability to manage the people and circumstances of one’s life may create a deep sense of anxiety or distress, especially if we are the product of a dysfunctional family where chaos, control, or abuse were the normal, everyday experience of our youth.

Our deepest inner struggle sometimes may be to obey the call by the Spirit to surrender. We may cling so tightly to the outcome of what needs to happen, that we stifle the process, and we restrict the free flow of the Spirit of life.

Surrender is a real struggle for some of us. It is our natural human inclination to demand our own way, to figure out our own solution, and to determine for ourselves what the beginning and end will be. Truly, we have never fully let go of our effort to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil. It seems our natural tendency is to stand under that tree longingly looking upward, reaching incessantly for what we in our hearts know is not the real solution to our problems.

Whether we like it or not, this unwillingness or inability to surrender, is deeply rooted in this simple reality: we do not know who God is. The God we believe in—if we say we do believe at all—is apparently not the kind of God who is really trustworthy and faithful, and truly loving. If he were, we would implicitly, completely, and without reservation, trust him.

Perhaps the reason we don’t have any faith in God is because the God we learned about or have been exposed to, is not a God we feel we can give our allegiance to and trust in. Perhaps the issue is not whether or not God exists, but rather, coming to a different understanding about who he is.

Joel Davila spoke this past Sunday at Good News Fellowship (access his sermon here) about this very thing. It is important we reexamine at times what it is we believe and don’t believe, and why we believe what we do. We need to ask ourselves, “Is it possible I have been wrong in my understanding about who God is, and what the Bible teaches about him?”

Many people first read the Bible beginning in Genesis and right on through. They see a God who is angry and vindictive, and who consciences the destruction or genocide of whole people groups. And then Jesus shows up and is not understood at all. He seems to indicate he is God even though he is demonstrably very human—and he seems to be the antithesis of the God of the Old Testament. And the people who follow him end up dead, or even worse, perpetuate the death and genocide of people groups in his name.

And that is the root of the problem. We just do not know nor do we understand the truth about who God is. We don’t read the Bible in the light of who God really is, as he has revealed himself to us. We cling tightly to our prejudices, our views, and our culturally or religiously influenced beliefs about the being and nature of God.

This is why the Spirit through the Body of Christ calls us to repentance—to a turning around or metanoia—to a turning away from our false beliefs about God toward what is true. God has revealed his true nature and being to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit has come to open our minds and hearts to understand, receive, and believe this truth, and to live in and by it.

One of the greatest misunderstandings of us as followers of Christ is in regard to how we read the Bible. We often believe that if it’s in the Bible, then it is something we should do. The Israelites and other Biblical figures did and wrote things in the name of God which were quite truly, awful and hard to understand or forgive. But the Bible must always be read with the understanding these people were inspired by God to write, yet they were broken people who wrote about God for God from a paradigm in which they did not fully know or understand the nature and being of God as he really was.

We must never read the Old Testament, or any part of the Bible, for that matter through any lens other than the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Scripture, and as Hebrews 9:19 says, even the book of the law, needed to be sprinkled with blood—to have God’s grace extended to it.

Jesus Christ is “the radiance of his glory and the exact representation [or ikon] of his nature.” (Heb. 1:3 NASB) Whatever we read in the Bible to learn about God’s Being must agree with the Person of Jesus Christ and his revelation of the Father. If it doesn’t seem to jive, then we need to be open to the possibility that we, or those who wrote these things, may have misunderstood or misinterpreted the motives, heart, will, mind, and actions—indeed, the very nature—of God.

How we read the Old Testament is also critical. I share this often because it made such an impact on me. My professor and mentor, Dr. John McKenna, taught the proper way to read the Torah is to read it in the order it was written. This means we don’t start in Genesis 1:1, but rather in Exodus 1:1. In Exodus we see God calling, and revealing himself to, Moses. Moses had the privilege of hearing from God’s own lips a description of his Being (Ex. 34:5-7). This description by God of himself is summed up in the apostle John’s words, “God is love,” (1 John 4:8) and “God is Light” (1 John 1:5).

This God of love and light drew a people into covenant relationship with himself at Mount Sinai, bearing with them as they wandered the wilderness, and finally bringing them to the edge of the Jordan River. It is here Moses wrote Genesis. His purpose was to teach the people the truth about who this God was they were in covenant relationship with, and who they were as his people. He was their Creator and their Redeemer, their God of covenant love and faithfulness. He was a gracious God who called them into relationship with himself and gave them a way to live in loving, faithful relationship with him by teaching them his way of being.

The nation of Israel wrestled through the centuries in this relationship with their God. They struggled to love, follow, and obey him. They always seemed to fall into the default of our human brokenness, into the lies perpetuated about the angry, condemning God of the nations who demanded servitude and sacrifice. Worst of all, they applied God’s name to things which could not have possibly come from the heart of their loving, gracious God.

How do I know this? Because when God chose to reveal himself to us by sending his Word into our humanity, this is not the way Jesus Christ was. Anything which does not coincide with who Jesus was and is, as he revealed the Father to us, needs to be reconsidered and reexamined. We need to have the humility and personal honesty to say it is possible we, all of humanity and us personally, have misunderstood.

This makes some of us very uncomfortable. But the Spirit calls us to see Abba in the face of Jesus, not only through the written Word. Apart from the revelation of the Living Word, the written Word has no substance. Jesus is the exact representation of the Father, so whatever we read in the Old Testament, or all of the Bible for that matter, must be seen and understood through the lens of Jesus Christ.

And so, the apostle John writes Jesus was very human and tangible, while at the same time he was fully God. The early church fathers sought to put words to all this and came to see the God revealed to us in the Person of Jesus Christ was One God in three Persons. This relational God is a God who is Light and who is Love. The followers of Jesus Christ worship this God of Light and Love because he was revealed to us in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

This relational God of Love and Light revealed to us in Jesus Christ can inform and transform not only our reading of the Bible, but every facet of our lives. We can find hope, strength, and an ability to trust in this God. This is the God who is willing to, and who does, join us in our darkness and brokenness, just so we can come to know him and to live in relationship with him. He comes to us even now in the midst of our struggles in the real Person and power of the Holy Spirit.

His purpose is not to harm us, condemn or reject us, but to draw us closer to him, and to share every aspect of life with us. He doesn’t expect us to carry everything ourselves but invites us to participate with him in finding and carrying out a solution to our struggles. When we can’t carry on, he carries us. But, then, we find ourselves in the place of needing to do the difficult thing: surrender.

Surrender is the hardest thing for us to do. But what if God was just like Jesus? Then could we surrender? If God was just like Jesus, could we trust him in every situation and allow him to care for us and provide for us, and maybe even direct us where we should go?

Surrender is tough. But not impossible, because Jesus completely surrendered himself to his Abba, and to us, even to the point of death. Any surrender which may be required of us is within the context of Christ’s perfect surrender. And he, by the Spirit, shares that surrender with us even now. Whatever we have need of is ours in Christ by the Spirit. This is why Jesus is the central point of the Christian faith.

If it is true of Jesus, it is true of our Abba, and therefore, of his Spirit. In the Spirit, through Jesus, it is becoming true of us, as we surrender and trust in the perfect love and light of God as expressed to us in Jesus Christ.

Dear Abba, thank you for never giving up on us, but continuing throughout the millennia to teach us the truth about who you really are—the God who is Light and who is Love. Thank you for sending your Son to us in Jesus and now by your Spirit so we can come to know you in truth and participate in your love and grace. Awaken us to the reality of your Love and Light through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.” Hebrews 1:1-3a NASB

“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

The Wind of Hope

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By Linda Rex

Lent
The other day I was sitting outside in a garden when I felt a breeze begin to blow across my face. The tree branches swayed and bent with the movement of the wind. The air was comfortably warm, and the color of the deep blue sky contrasted with the browns and grays of the winter foliage.

As the gentle wind blew the trees about, I was reminded of what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit. He said we don’t really know where the wind comes from or where it is going. In the same way, he said, we don’t know where and how the Spirit is at work in someone. The Spirit is not a thing we control or manipulate—the Spirit is a person we have a relationship with.

It seems when we come up against struggles in this life or we experience difficulty with being unable to change what we would like to see changed, we often blame God or ourselves for it. If we are a believer in Christ, we may even accuse ourselves of not having enough of God’s Spirit, or not praying hard enough, or of not “being in the Word” enough. We pour out upon ourselves condemnation for our failures and shortcomings.

It is easy to lay the blame for much of our faults and difficulties at our own door. If only I had…. If I just would…. And often, there is good reason for us feeling we are to blame. There may be some basis in fact.

It is just as easy to lay the blame elsewhere, at other people’s feet. I wouldn’t have this problem if he hadn’t…. Or, if she hadn’t done that, then I wouldn’t be in this position right now. There’s always room to blame someone or something.

Yet Jesus, in his preaching, taught us to throw away all the stones. None of us should be casting stones at anyone else, since we are all equally guilty and at fault. There is no place for stone-casting in the kingdom of God (John 8:1-11).

We can forget, though, that we may still be in our stone-casting mode when it comes to ourselves. We may hold things against ourselves which God forgave a long time ago. In fact, God forgave it all millennia ago on the cross—so why do we hold onto it? Why do we wander about in the darkness, thinking we are rejected or unloved by God, when in reality he has forgiven and is forgiving us?

In our struggle against those things in our lives which do not reflect the glory of Christ we were created to bear, we can find ourselves wallowing in our failures. Life is a struggle, full of difficulties and pains and griefs. We are going to trip up and not live in the way we know we should. Other people are going to point the finger and remind us of our shortcomings. But what we do with our failures is critical.

We must not lie about them. The apostle John says when we act as if we don’t have any faults, we are lying and not walking in the truth (1 John 1:5-10). To lie about, ignore or deny our failures means we are walking about in the darkness. We are not walking in truth.

The truth is we are all walking in the Light of God’s presence in each moment of our lives. By the Spirit we are all in the presence of God at all times. There is no existence apart from God’s Being as Father, Son, and Spirit. Whatever we do, good or bad, is in God’s presence—to say we have not done anything wrong is to say something that God already knows isn’t true. So why even try to pretend we are perfect?

When Jesus ascended to heaven, he sent the Spirit from our Father—he gave us the indwelling presence of God within. This is a perfect gift, as it is the gift of an ongoing relationship with Abba through Jesus in the Spirit—a relationship we were created for and were intended to have from before time began. This relationship is not dependent upon our perfection, but solely dependent upon God’s infinite love which was demonstrated to us in his Son Jesus and what he did for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

The struggle we may have as individuals is receiving this gift and embracing the truth we live as forgiven sinners each and every moment of our lives. Sometimes the idol we need to cast down is the belief we could, if we tried hard enough, attain perfection of some kind in this life. This doesn’t mean anything goes, but rather we live daily in the humility of our creatureliness—we’re capable of the worst, but God has declared that’s not who we are. Rather, we are forgiven, beloved, and accepted in his Son Jesus—he is our saving grace.

Laying down the stones we’d prefer to cast at ourselves is hard to do sometimes. It may be that castings rocks at ourselves is the normal thing for us to do, since everyone who we truly cared about has done this to us—so we believe this is what we deserve. We may feel better, temporarily, about ourselves if we cast a few stones, because casting stones is easier than facing up to our failures and asking for forgiveness and help with them. There is some measure of pride in being able to cast stones at ourselves rather than humbly owning our need to repent and trust in Christ, asking him to transform us by his Spirit.

In their novel Healing Stones, Steve Arterburn and Nancy Rue create a character who struggles with a major personal failure and who desperately wants to make things right. At one point her counselor hands her a rock, and says to her, “…take this stone with you…and find a use for it besides throwing it at yourself.” The truth is, there are times when our worst enemy is ourselves. We can be more of an accuser than the Accuser himself—and save him the effort in the process.

We don’t always know what the Spirit is doing in us or in those around us. The process of healing is intricate and difficult, and very time-consuming. The work the Spirit does in a person’s mind and heart is often hidden and isn’t seen until after the fact—we see the effects, not the actual work the Spirit does.

We can participate in the healing process in others and in ourselves by throwing away our rocks and stones. In fact, we may even consider turning them into something useful instead. Rather than condemning others for their failures, perhaps we can help them–being honest enough about our own failures we could come alongside them and help them to grow and heal in ways in which we didn’t receive help and encouragement.

This opens up space for the Spirit to do an even greater work of healing and renewal. Sometimes our failures are, when we surrender them to the grace of God in Christ and the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, the means by which the wind of the Spirit brings hope to others. In this way, we participate in the grace given in Jesus for all humanity and find healing for ourselves in the process.

Abba, thank you for embracing us in spite of our failures and weaknesses. Thank you for embracing us in your grace, in the gift of your Son and the Spirit. Holy Spirit, blessed Wind of God, blow in and through us, filling us anew with the heart and mind of the Father, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8 NASB

Shining on the Mountain

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By Linda Rex

Transfiguration

Years ago, I was looking through the books in the public library during my summer vacation from school when one author’s name on the spine of a book caught my eye. Back then people did not name their children Zane, and Grey was an unusual last name. Curious, I mentioned Zane Grey to my dad. He seemed to know who the author was, but he discouraged me from reading his books.

In later years, though, I picked up Riders of the Purple Sage and was surprised to find I identified with the heroine in the story. From then on, I was hooked and began looking for his books in all the libraries near where I lived.

The culture of the Old West presented in Zane Grey’s stories may have been embellished and not entirely accurate. But his presentation of the human heart and the human condition were impressive to me. He wrote of the worst decadence and oppressive evil we humans are capable of. He told stories of men and women who were so given over to evil they were enslaved by it and unable to free themselves.

But Zane Grey also told stories of the capacity of the human heart and mind to rise above all opposition and evil so as to stand against such evil and bring justice and hope to their community and loved ones. He wrote about the way people wrestled with their conscience and their limitations to eventually rise above it all and find freedom and hope.

In many ways we find these same kind of stories in the Bible—this is the human story. The Scriptures are filled with the raw honest truth about our failures as human beings—our enslavement to evil and sin. But they also tell the stories of broken, fragile humans who stand against evil and sin, and who, by God’s grace and power, bring hope, healing, and renewal to their families and communities. It seems that hidden within our broken jars of clay is a glory which cannot be buried.

It is amazing how God chose to enter into our broken humanity in the person of the Word, the Son of God. How is it that God could and would stuff his amazing divine glory into a few little cells? How was it that Jesus was able to hide for so many years the glory of God which was hidden within him?

And yet, this is what we see Jesus did. He may have healed people, cast out demons, and stilled the storm, but he was just as human when he got done as when he began. He spent a lot of time telling people not to share with others the truth about how he healed them or helped them. It was not Jesus’ purpose to shine with divine glory during the majority of his stay in human flesh here on earth.

What James, Peter, and John got to see on the mountain of the transfiguration was very special. They had their eyes opened to the reality of the true glory of Jesus. And they were stunned—they didn’t know how to react. Peter in his momentary delirium suggested building booths for them to stay in. But Jesus was only giving them a glimpse—he was not reassuming his eternal glory in that particular moment. He remained in his humanity—and told them to keep this event to themselves until after the resurrection.

It would take the death and resurrection of Jesus for the disciples to begin to understand what it was Jesus was doing. He had no interest in touting his own glory while in human flesh but rather chose to intentionally set it aside to share in ours. He was living in relationship with his Abba in the Spirit just as we are to. He was not living out of his divine glory, but rather sharing in our human glory—the glory God created in us as reflections of his glory as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What Jesus did in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension was to sweep all of humanity up into his story as the Son of the Living God. It seems there is so much more going on in the world than just our everyday mundane lives. Each of us in Christ is now the hero or heroine who has the task of standing in opposition to all which is evil, sinful, and destructive no matter the cost to him or herself. In Christ we are included in the divine fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit, and we are more than conquerors over anything the kingdom of darkness may choose to throw at us.

Our lives are hidden with Christ in God, so whatever we may be doing is a participation in Christ’s very life. Are we living like the evil villain in this story? Or are we acting as if we are the unexpected deliverer? Are we living the lie the kingdom of darkness is the real power at work in the world, or are we living out the truth that all evil, sin, and death were conquered over and swept away in Jesus Christ?

In sending his Holy Spirit to earth through his risen Son Jesus, Abba poured out the gift of his Presence and Power on all flesh. This gift is there for you and me—the indwelling Christ, the presence of God within our humanity—this treasure in jars of clay. We have a glory, a capacity which is beyond our comprehension. In Christ by the Spirit we are capable of more than what we often believe possible.

What we do with that gift is critical. Like taking a book off the shelf and opening it up to read it, we can jump into the midst of the story and be a part of the action. Or we can leave it on the shelf, and never experience the thrill of the story, the anticipation of the ending, or the companionship of fellow journeyers. Are we going to go by what someone else said about the book? Or are we going to read it for ourselves?

Christ has done all which needs to be done to make this incredible story something we get to share in. Maybe it’s time to pull the book off the shelf.

Dear Abba, thank you for including us in this amazing story through your Son Jesus Christ. By your Spirit awaken us to our full and joyful participation in it. Open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our heart to know what is really going on: You dwell in us and call us to share forever in your divine fellowship of love and grace, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.” 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 NLT

Night Vision

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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

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

Our Springs of Joy

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By Linda Rex

Advent—JOY

As one who has suffered on occasion from the blight of depression, I have a sympathetic heart for anyone who experiences living in this dark place. When a person is in the midst of such sadness and grief, it can take all of his or her effort just to do the simplest tasks of life.

This is not a place other people can come to and pull the sufferer out of. It is rather a place where those near and dear can come alongside and offer support, prayer, and encouragement. The best gift a person can offer to one suffering with depression is a constant and faithful relationship—a living presence with a willingness to sit in the darkness with the one struggling.

Sometimes we choose our darkness. Sometime the darkness is a result of other people’s bad choices. And other times, the darkness just is—it exists through no fault of our own. It is merely a result of health issues or circumstances. Darkness—an inner weight of crushing sadness and grief, or just loss of joy—can happen to anyone. Being depressed is not a sin, although it may at times be a symptom of an inner struggle.

For some of us, being depressed comes easily. The negativity through which we see the world becomes a lens which darkens our view each and every moment of our lives. This causes us to miss many opportunities for joy. We can be so used to the darkness that when the light enters, we close our eyes to protect them from its brightness.

Here during Advent, as we approach Christmas and the New Year, we may find ourselves resisting the holiday spirit, and feeling overwhelmed by loss and grief for various reasons. It is hard to feel upbeat when your heart is broken and your thoughts are filled with memories of what was and what could have and should have been. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness during a season which should be filled with great joy.

The Holy Spirit calls to us during Advent to remember the One who joined us in our darkness, who didn’t feel it was enough just to say he loved us, but who actually came and sat in the sadness, grief, sorrow, and death with us. For God it was not enough just to be gracious and loving—he did gracious and loving. He took on our humanity and lived shoulder-to-shoulder with each of us.

God’s judgment on sin and our proclivity to evil and our preference for the darkness was the precious gift of a baby in a manger—the Word of God in human flesh—Immanuel, God with us. God’s judgment on our darkness was a gift of joy in the Person of his Son. He judged all humanity worthy of grace and worthy of salvation, worthy of his presence in the midst of their evil, suffering, and death.

That dark, starry night as the shepherds sat with their flocks on a hill outside of Bethlehem, God entered this broken world welcomed by Joseph and Mary as the fulfillment of the word of God through an angel. This little baby may have seemed insignificant and unimpressive in his humble circumstances, but his birth was the cause of the celebration of the angels. As we read in Luke 2:

“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” (Luke 2:8-14 NKJV)

Here was a message from God to his people—a message of peace and good will from God toward his people—a message of joy. These shepherds were astonished and overwhelmed, but their response was to seek out this baby to welcome him.

In our personal darkness, we may feel as though God has forgotten us, or as though we are lost in a dark night, barely holding ourselves together. But the truth we need to be reminded of is that God’s heart toward us has not changed. He is faithful and he still loves and cares for us. God has come into our darkness in the Person of the Word of God, and in Jesus Christ has lived our life, died our death, and carried us from death into life in his resurrection.

And it was not enough for God to join us in our broken humanity. He also sent his Spirit—pouring out on all the gift of life in his Son. The call to faith, is the call to believe in and embrace the joy, the good will of God toward each and every person in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. God has given us an inner source of joy in the gift of his personal presence in and with us in the Holy Spirit. As the psalmist said: “All my springs of joy are in you.” (Ps. 87:7b NASB)

The reality is, when we are in a dark place such as depression, depravity, or despair, we need a source beyond ourselves to raise us up and deliver us. We need a source of joy which is real and endless, and which will not be squelched by our stubborn desire to remain in the darkness. We need “springs of joy” to draw upon.

And God has given us this in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. We celebrate the breaking in of heaven into our darkness this time of year, and we find in the birth of Jesus Christ the hope, peace, and joy we would never have otherwise. He is the source of our true life, a life which God has lived in for all eternity, a life he is determined to share with you and me for all the eons to come. He calls us to trust—to believe in the truth: God is here. God is near. And he is with us forever. Immanuel—the most precious gift of all!

Dear Abba, thank you! Thank you for the precious gift of joy. Thank you for not leaving us in our darkness, sorrow, grief, and depravity, but giving us a way out—your own Son. Fill us by your Spirit with all your hope, peace, joy, and love—we do not find these things within ourselves. They are a gift. And so we thank you, and praise you with the angels, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“O sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done wonderful things, His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him. The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; break forth and sing for joy and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout joyfully before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Psalm 98 NASB

Message of the Ages

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by Linda Rex
Advent–PEACE
This morning I was listening to Casting Crowns sing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. In this song, the lyricist tells about how he was overwhelmed by the evil, pain, and suffering of the world around him, and how he allowed it to darken his view—until the light of grace and love dawned and he truly heard the eternal song, and it transformed his perspective.

Indeed, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the negativity in the world around us. How is it possible to continue to struggle day by day and never seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel? There are times in our lives when one bad thing happens after another, and soon we have lost hope anything will ever get better.

But God calls out to us in the midst of the midnight darkness in the cry of an infant. He proclaims the amazing news: “I am here! You are not forgotten! You are loved!” And he says to you and to me: “There is nothing which could ever come between us—nothing that could ever be so awful I will not enter into it and save you from it.”

And he is here. He is Immanuel. And in him, death, evil, and sin are defeated. We in our broken humanity, are rescued and brought into the marvelous light of the presence of Abba through Jesus.

We are included in the divine life. As we by the Spirit embrace the living Lord, we begin to realize we are not alone. The Spirit bears witness to our spirit—we are God’s adopted children, we are beloved, we belong. Abba holds us in his arms, welcomes us home to be with him forever, in his Son and by his Spirit.

Whatever struggles there may be in this life, whatever isolation we may feel, whatever suffering and abuse we may encounter—these are but a straw to be blown away by the wind of the Spirit. They are but a passing moment of pain in the midst of eternal joy and glory.

Yes, they are a real part of our human existence—something we must experience and endure. These things won’t just disappear. Rather, it’s our perspective which needs changed. We need to realize, as the apostle Paul wrote, it is in these moments of weakness we are strongest, for Christ is our strength and our redemption in the midst of our troubles, sorrows and struggles.

If there is one thing we as humans have proven over the millennia, it is we don’t know what we are doing. On our own, we are incapable of walking in the paths of peace with God and one another. Since the Garden of Eden when we chose the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we have been determining for ourselves a path which involves achieving some human-defined goal of perfection. And along this path, we have found suffering, evil, death, and a host of human ills.

The way of peace—a way we have not known. We have tried to create our own paths of peace. We try conformity—forcing others to our will and expectations. We try silencing any voice other than our own. We try unlimited freedom and self-indulgence. But these only create suffering, chaos, or slavery.

But God offered us a tree of life—this life which is in his Son. This is the eternal life which Jesus himself defined as the intimate knowing of our Abba and his Son Jesus Christ in the Spirit. This is a relational path—one of out-going love and care for God and others. This is the perichoretic life our heavenly Father, Son, Spirit-God has lived in for all eternity. This is the life we were created to dwell in. And this life—is the way of peace.

The way of peace is in reality a Person, not just a way of doing things. This Person lived his life in a communion of intimate relationship with our heavenly Father in the Spirit—in total freedom bounded only by outgoing love and concern, and filled with gracious compassion and purity of mind and heart. This Way of Peace, established in our humanity a way of being which defines us—it is the truth of who you and I really are. And he sent his Spirit so we could begin to live in the truth of our being as we embrace our divine life in him, in Jesus Christ.

God’s will toward you and me from the beginning has been a Spirit of good will. God wishes for you and me—peace—the same peace which he has dwelt in for all eternity in his perfect life as Father, Son, and Spirit. God so passionately desires we share in this peace with him, that he came in person, and joined with us in our broken humanity in Jesus Christ, so we could experience true peace.

And on that starry Bethlehem night, he came—a tiny, fragile human life—an infant in the arms of a young mother. And as Abba promised through the prophet Micah centuries before: “This One will be our peace.” Abba knew it would take nothing less than the gift of his Son for us to experience true peace.

This Advent, may you begin to experience more and more the blessing of true peace, with God and with others, through Jesus Christ our Lord by his heavenly Spirit. May God bless you with his true peace.

Abba, thank you for the gift of peace through your Son, the Prince of Peace. Thank you for being our God of Peace, who through your Spirit of Peace enables us to share in your heavenly peace. Grant us the grace to embrace the truth of who we are in Jesus, and to walk in the way of peace you have established for us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. Therefore He will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren will return to the sons of Israel. And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the bends of the earth. This One will be our peace.” Micah 5:2-5a NASB

“To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, ‘to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death’, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:77–79 NASB

“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13 NASB