fellowship

Misguided Introspection

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By Linda Rex

I remember the first time I ever participated in a sacred service which involved eating bread and drinking wine in communion with others of like faith. I had just been baptized and was new at the whole process. At that particular time, our church only observed this once a year. That particular observance stands out in my mind because it was so solemn and so serious. Hundreds of us stood in line to participate and everyone was completely silent.

Back then I heard many a sermon prior to this observance telling us that we were to examine ourselves so we would not take of the elements in an unworthy manner. Examining oneself meant comparing oneself against the law, including keeping food laws and holy days. By the time I was through with this kind of self-examination, there was no way I could ever come away believing anything positive about myself. It was a one-way trip towards discouragement, humiliation, and defeat.

Then one day, I heard a pastor bring out another verse which talked about self-examination, 2 Cor. 13:5-6: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test.” That particular passage put the whole discussion on another level.

The first type of self-examination is really easy for an introvert like myself. I can go down a million rabbit-trails in my head where I see all the things I’ve said or done wrong, and beat myself up for each one as I go. It is a lot more difficult to do the second type of self-examination, because it involves looking beyond my broken humanity to who I am in Christ.

To see Christ in oneself is to see the truth about one’s being. First, we were created in the image of God in his likeness, to be his image-bearers—adopted children who live in loving relationship with God and one another. In Christ, God redeemed our broken humanity, restoring our fellowship with him and one another—and in the gift of the Spirit, God came to work this out in us individually, enabling us to live and walk in Christ, who was and is the perfect image-bearer of God.

When we look within, not to see ourselves but to see Christ in us, we come up against the reality we indeed fall short of Christ’s perfection. But in the same moment we find Christ stands in our stead and on our behalf. Grace triumphs over judgment in that moment. Not only does Christ intercede moment by moment in every situation. He also works to heal, restore, and renew our relationship with God and each person in our lives as we turn to him in faith and respond to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives.

Self-examination, then, becomes not a negative thing, but an encouraging, anticipatory experience in which we begin to see what Christ did on our behalf and what he is doing right now in each moment on our behalf. And we begin to have some hope in what he will do in the future because we are learning he is trustworthy and faithful as well as loving, and he, by his Spirit, is at work within us, transforming us from the inside out.

The first type of self-examination tends to create an outlook which is self-absorbed rather than one which is outward-looking and other-centered. The life of the Trinity is other-centered and focused outward—towards God’s adopted children who are being brought into the life and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Within the inner relations of the Trinity, there is a mutual pouring out and receiving—a movement which is unending, and which we were drawn into by Christ, and participate in through the Holy Spirit.

We were meant, not to be self-absorbed or self-conscious, but to be focused on Christ and conscious of his indwelling presence as well as aware of his work in the world around us. Attending to God in Christ and what he is doing by the Spirit in us and the world around us keeps us from being self-centered and self-absorbed. Indeed, it is best that we come to have no thought of self-at all, but rather find our self in Christ, who by his Spirit enables us to be truly ourselves.

This does not mean we negate ourselves or diminish ourselves, but rather that we begin to truly believe we are those people God intended us to be in the first place—his beloved, adopted children who with their own unique selves live as equals in loving fellowship and harmony. And in believing, we begin to act as if this is indeed the case. In this way we image the God we were created to reflect, and find in doing so, we experience the love, joy, and peace God meant for us to participate in from the beginning.

To examine ourselves and find Christ within is a far cry from examining ourselves and ending up discouraged, defeated, and despairing. We are reminded by the apostle Paul, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).” Our life in Christ is a journey in which we grow—it is not a static position or a place we come to and stay in. This is an existence where all of life is a participation in Christ’s life. We find our everyday tasks and experiences take on a whole new meaning as we realize we do not live alone and on our own, but share all things with Christ in the Spirit, and join in with what God is actively doing in the world around us.

Then when we come to the communion table to eat bread and drink wine, we are seeing Christ much more clearly. The body of Christ takes on a whole new meaning, including not only the human body of Jesus Christ, and the bread and the wine, but also the group of fellow believers with which we share a common faith. It also makes room for us to welcome all others to the table, since we were all taken up with Christ in his hypostatic union with God when he bore our common humanity to the cross, died, and rose again on our behalf.

Our participation in communion is a reminder, not of our failures and shortcomings, but of the gracious gift of Christ in our place and on our behalf. By the Spirit, we put on Christ, and we live in the assurance of his mediating presence with the Father, as now we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. This makes sharing communion with others a pleasant remembrance of joy and warm fellowship, rather than a silent, serious, painful experience we would rather forget.

Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son, and the pouring out of your Spirit. Thank you we are in Christ and by the Spirit we are able to share in your joy, peace, and loving fellowship. Free us from our self-focus and self-absorption, from our self-centeredness and self-condemnation. Enable us to see and embrace our true self—forgiven, accepted and beloved in Christ—and live in the truth of who we really are. In examining ourselves, may we discover we are in Christ and Christ is in us, and that by the Spirit, we are bound up in you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 NASB

It’s Tempting, But…

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by Linda Rex

Lent: In our two churches we have been considering the reality of temptation. We’ve been learning that temptation is something every human faces, especially when it comes to our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Falling prey to temptation is part of our human condition—none of us are exempt from the lure of sin.

As we look towards Holy Week and the gift of the death and resurrection of God’s Son on our behalf, we can find comfort in the life Jesus lived, the death he died, because he faced every temptation we face, but did not sin. We participate in his perfected humanity by the Holy Spirit, and in that way we are able to endure temptation and resist the pull to sin.

It is normal for us as human beings to come up against something in our lives that tells us quite convincingly that God is not to be trusted—that he is not the loving, compassionate God he is in reality. Life circumstances, the way significant people in our lives treat us and our response to these experiences, all play a role in the way we view God and whether or not we believe he is trustworthy and loving.

What we believe about God and who he is, and about ourselves and who we are, directly impacts the way we respond to the events in our lives as well as the way we respond to the desires and pulls of our broken humanity. The emptiness we may feel at times and the hidden dark areas we push down inside ourselves because they are too painful to face often drive us in ways we don’t recognize or expect. Sometimes it seems that our behavior is beyond our control.

We may find ourselves addicted to substances or habits we’d rather not be held to, and we may find ourselves in relationships or circumstances that are unhealthy and destructive, but we don’t know how to step away from them and move on. We may hear some preacher say that we need to repent and put sin out of our lives, but sin doesn’t hear the sermon and stays in spite of all our efforts to get rid of it.

If facing temptation is a common human experience, and temptation is something that Jesus faced alongside each one of us during his life here on earth, then we need to understand being tempted to do or say or be something that does not express love for God or for others is not a sin in itself. Temptation happens. How we face that temptation will determine whether we will endure and resist it, or whether we will give in to it.

The key, when it comes to resisting temptation, has to do with our relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit. We need first to understand that God is faithful. He would not allow us to be tempted if he hadn’t first provided us with what we needed to overcome that temptation and to resist it. And he did this—he gave us Jesus Christ and the Spirit.

Jesus Christ endured the same temptations and yet did not sin, no matter how enticing those temptations were. His perfected humanity is ours through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, Jesus dwells in our hearts. The “mystery of godliness” the apostle Paul said, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Christ in us by the Spirit is what we need to overcome every temptation and resist it. Christ did it, and we participate in that finished work by the Spirit in us.

When we are living in intimate relationship with the Father, through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, in a daily walk with God that involves transparency, authenticity, humility and an acknowledgement of our dependency upon God for all things, temptations begin to be seen for what they are. We begin to see that temptations are invitations to break fellowship with God and others.

When we experience the broken relationships, alienation and separation that comes with yielding to temptation, and we face the pain that comes with the consequences of our sins, this can be a springboard to a deeper relationship with God. It is God’s mercy and kindness that brings us to the place of repentance so that we will give up our idolatries, our immorality, and our ingratitude towards God.

When we have experienced what it is like to walk in a close relationship with God, where the Spirit begins to work to transform us and we encounter Christ in a personal, intimate communion, we find that we don’t what to do anything that will mar or break that relationship. We won’t want to offend or insult or harm God or others in any way. This is Christ in us—God’s heart and mind are beginning to become ours. This is our best resistance to temptation.

Granted, we do participate in the process of resisting temptation. We do this by growing in and deepening our relationship with God. We open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, and invite him to grow Christ in us, and we do this by practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation on God and his Word, meeting together for worship and fellowship, reading the Word of God, caring for others, and participating in small groups.

We may need to practice a spiritual discipline which offers up to God our commitment to put away things that cause us to be tempted to do what is wrong. We may need to eliminate certain things or particular relationships out of our daily existence because they cause us to be tempted to break fellowship with God or others. We may need to stop listening to or watching things that encourage us to participate in ungodly ways of living or being.

Not all of us are strong in every area of our lives to where we are never tempted in some way. It is foolish to constantly tempt ourselves, especially when God is calling us to put off the old self and to put on our new self which was given to us in Christ Jesus. Part of our participation in Christ’s perfected humanity involves choosing to live in agreement with the King of the kingdom of God rather than insisting on being a law unto ourselves.

But ultimately, we will face temptations that seem beyond our ability to resist. We will have areas in our lives where we cannot seem to ever overcome some flaw or fault or sin. We will struggle in some areas and no matter how hard we try to resist the temptation, we fail. God will, more than once, bring us to the place where we have to recognize and acknowledge that we are incapable of resisting sin on our own. We are incapable of perfection in this life—it cannot be done by us, on our own.

God says to you and to me—accept the reality of your need for grace. Turn to Christ. He is your perfected humanity—he is your life. Respond to the gift of the Spirit God has given you. Open yourself to the work he is trying to do in you and in your life even now. God is at work in you, providing the way of escape from temptation and enabling you to endure the temptations you are facing. He is faithful. He will not stop until he has finished what he began in you—to reveal Christ in you. Praise his holy Name.

Lord Jesus, I thank you that you endured every temptation you faced and you did not sin. And thank you for sharing this perfect resistance against temptation with us by the Spirit. I pray, Father, that you will finish the work you have begun in us so that we might fully reflect the image of Christ and that by your Spirit we may live in close fellowship with you and one another. We look forward to an eternity spent in gracious loving communion with you and one another. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13 NASB

Breathing God’s Love In and Out

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by Linda Rex

My care of my mother during her end of life is teaching me to value simple things like taking another breath, being able to take care of my own personal needs, and being able to have coherent thoughts and express them. And I see how God is in the midst of even these mundane, yet essential, parts of life.

It’s amazing how the simple things in life have such powerful lessons for us as human beings. Take, for example, a breath of fresh air. We breathe for the most part without even knowing we are doing it.

If we were to take a moment and consciously breathe in and out, we would notice not only the sound we make while doing it, but also the movement in our body. This is an essential event that happens every moment of our lives and our body, unless it is ill, just seems to know when and how to breathe so we can continue to live. It knows when it is not getting air and reacts in a way that tries to ensure than another breath is taken before it’s too late.

When God breathed life into Adam, he set a whole stream of things into motion that scientists today are still trying to figure out. The human body, with its ability to metabolize oxygen from the air around it, is an amazing piece of architecture. And it’s so much more than that. Each human being is a soul.

As a soul, there is a life that goes beyond the life we see and experience as we take a breath in and out. This life transcends the physical. There’s a spiritual element, something that involves the heart and mind, the reason and the emotions. Something within us connects us to one another, and to a life that is other than our humanity. We find ourselves considering such things as life beyond death.

God created us for relationship—it’s built into us. We connect with others and they connect with us. We connect with God, because he made us, and he took on our humanity in Christ and intimately connected us with him. Connections between human beings and between humans and God are a natural part of our existence.

Yet, some of us find ourselves resisting relationships, or being unable to have healthy ones. We may shut people out, or close ourselves off from building relationships with other people for many reasons. When we do this, we are actually cutting ourselves off from God’s divine Breath—preventing our spiritual lungs from breathing full breaths of air.

It is in relationships that God moves to heal, transform and grow us as individuals. Our encounters with other people provide the means by which the Holy Spirit tends to our hearts. Our souls or inner beings grow thirsty, twisted and hard when we do not have healthy, nurturing relationships in our lives. So much mental and emotional ill health comes from having grown up in families or circumstances where relationships were unhealthy and did not reflect the divine life and love.

Spiritual community among believers should be a place where God’s love and life are seen and experienced in an ongoing way. The gathering of God’s people should be a place where the breath of God renews, refreshes and cleanses people. It should not be a place that is abusive, cold, rigid, hard and condemning. Rather, it should be clear that the Holy Spirit is breathing life into all who are gathered there for fellowship and worship.

Those who have relationships with believers ought to experience this same invigorating, life-renewing love. A real breathing in of God’s life and love ought to occur when someone encounters a follower of Christ. They should walk away encouraged, blessed, renewed and comforted.

This breathing in and breathing out of God’s love and life ought to be for each of us as natural as our breathing in and out of the air around us. In God, we live and move and have our being, Paul wrote. So not only is our breathing of air an essential part of our humanity, so is our breathing in and out of God’s love and life by the Spirit.

We are connected at such a deep level with God and each person around us, that sharing God’s love and life with others should be as natural as the next breath we take—we shouldn’t have to struggle with being able to do it—it’s a part of who we are in Christ.

So as we ask God’s Spirit to awaken Christ within us and to make us more aware of the life and love we are already participating in through him, maybe we can begin to see that following Christ and loving others is just simply being ourselves. Caring for one another’s needs, comforting one another in the midst of our hurts, and having compassion for the hurting are just a natural part of our being—it’s who we really are. Really, it’s just as simple as breathing in and breathing out.

Dear God, thank you for each breath I take today. May I live with you and others in such a way that your Spirit breathes life and love moment by moment into all my relationships. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.

“And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22 NASB

Offering Connection

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by Linda Rex

Several years ago I facilitated a divorce support group in a small community. The group was small and we spent our time walking through the healing process together. The members of the group shared their stories and we talked about ways to begin to build new relationships.

One of the ladies had been in a difficult and at times, dangerous, relationship, and it was important for her to begin to make some significant changes in her life. She needed to end old, unhealthy relationships with people who were drawing her into destructive habits, and to begin to build strong bonds with people who would lift her up and help her to grow in positive ways.

I wanted to invite her to attend church with me, but it was rather awkward, since it was an hour and a half one way to where I was attending at the time. I did offer to bring her with me to services, but then I suggested that perhaps she could attend one of the churches in the community. I knew several of the pastors, and was sure that they would help her to grow in her relationship with Jesus Christ.

But the problem was that she had no friends who attended church. All her near and dear friends were only found at the local bar—because that was her social life. That bar was the hub of the local community and whatever was going to happen would happen there, or she would hear about it there from her friends. It wasn’t that the bar was necessarily a bad place for her to go—it’s just that her good friends hung out there along with her abusive spouse and some other people who were not good for her to be around.

Her past experience with church told her that church was not a safe place to go. In fact, in her view the bar where she went for fun and fellowship was a safer place relationally (in spite of the negative influences) than any of the churches were. She really didn’t know any church people with whom she felt loved and accepted. So she had no reason to go to church. Church scared her, especially now that she had the stigma of being divorced.

As time passed I could see the hunger in her for a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, but my efforts to connect her with some type of Christian relationships were rejected. I continued to offer her support after the group ended, but I found that she went on struggling with the pattern of unhealthy relationships and behaviors. She was not willing to risk attending a church she knew nothing about and could not relate to, and did not want to give up the friends and familiar surroundings of the neighborhood bar. Eventually she moved away, and in the process her circumstances changed. But she did not, to my knowledge, ever begin attending church anywhere.

What was it about that neighborhood bar that made it so attractive to her that she would not give it up? She really didn’t go there to drink—she went there for the relationships. She went there because it was fun to dance, to play pool, and to talk with her buddies. When she had a rough day at work, she was able to talk with someone about it. If she was having relational problems, her pals would commiserate and give her helpful advice. She didn’t have to worry about feeling lonely, because she could go there and find someone to hang out with. If she wanted someone to celebrate with her or cry with her, there they were.

It almost sounds like church, doesn’t it?

Actually, I think it should. Because isn’t that what the body of Christ is supposed to be like? A group of people gathered together in Christ to share life—to lift each other up, share each other’s joys and sorrows, and to offer one another support, encouragement and advice?

I don’t really think the whole problem with getting people to church is bad publicity or misinformation. I think it also boils down to the reality that church today is no longer the Christian fellowship it was meant to be. Bonhoeffer’s description in his book Life in Community is a far cry from what many of us within the church community experience. It is hard to find this life-on-life way of living out the Christian faith.

Too many of us are so busy protecting our glitzy façade of ethical behavior to really form deep, meaningful relationships with others in the church. Sadly, we often create an environment that makes people feel very uncomfortable with owning up to their failures and needs. This makes it very difficult for those who are struggling to be able to freely repent and confess their faults so they can begin to find healing and hope.

I personally believe the series Cheers had such a long, successful run was because it touched a deep place in people that resonated with their need to connect in a deep way and to share life with others. What if our churches became places where people were able to be real? What if our churches made people feel like they were accepted and loved just the way they were, while encouraging them to grow into all they could be and all God wants for them? Could people get so hooked on such warm, loving fellowship that they could not do without it?

To me, that sounds a lot like participation in the divine life and love—it sounds like perichoresis. And I think we all have an inner longing for it because it is what we were created to share in. All areas of our lives provide opportunities to create and participate in such fellowship, and to share it with others. And we have all eternity to do this with one another. We can start now as we gather together for worship and prayer as God’s people, but also as we share all facets of our lives with one another the way God intended. May God bless and guide us as we grow up into true Christian fellowship.

Dear God, thank you for including us in your life and love, Grant us the grace to include others as well. May we learn to practice genuine fellowship with one another as we share life with those you bring to us to share life with. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” Philippians 2:1–2 NASB