By Linda Rex
JANUARY 26, 2020, 3RD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—This morning I was reading an article by Stephon Alexander, a theoretical physicist whose aim is to unite quantum theory with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. His article in Nautilus spoke about how he was struck by the way light was used in a drawing by the Oakes twins, two artists who use innovative technique and inventions in their works.(1) In the struggle to understand how our universe works, scientists often must take into account what role light plays in their theories.
My first introduction to the essential nature of light in both science and theology came in my classwork with the late Dr. John McKenna. He, on more than one occasion, pointed out how light was often used in the scriptures, especially in relation to the original Light, the Lord himself. It seems that we, as image-bearers of God, were always meant to live and walk in the light—in the light of the sun and in the Light of God, as his adopted and beloved children. And often, in our brokenness, we choose to live and walk in the darkness of evil, sin, and death instead.
When Matthew speaks of how Jesus, after the death of John the Baptizer, settled in Capernaum in Galilee, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying that upon those people a light had dawned. The dawning of light upon a dark world is often a glorious sight. One of the most beautiful experiences I believe, is sitting in the quiet darkness of the early morning waiting for the sun to rise. As it barely hits the horizon, a lone bird begins to sing and the shapes of the trees, houses, and other objects start to take form. As the sun rises, the sky begins to grow lighter, the shapes begin to have color and depth, and the song of the lone bird becomes a joyful chorus of all varieties of birds. Soon the bright light of the sun brings out the full glory of each tree, flower, and bush, and the world is fully awake in a brand new day.
The entry of light of the sun into a darkened world is so much like Jesus’ entry into the darkness of our broken humanity. The earth does not make the sun shine on it—it has no control over whether the sun shines or not. It merely turns itself and the light touches it in new places. In many ways this is what it means for us to turn to Christ, to receive the light he brings to us. He is the Light of the world—what he brings to us is meant to illuminate the darkness within, transforming and healing it and bringing out the full glory of who God created us to be.
Our struggle as human beings is that, as Jesus told Nicodemus, “the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:19-21 NASB). Light has the discomfiting ability to expose truth, and even though that truth may offer us real freedom, we prefer to remain in darkness, in control of our own destiny.
What we seem to forget is that we as human beings are incapable of providing light for ourselves. Try this sometime: Walk into a cave and you will be surrounded completely by a darkness so deep, you can almost feel it. Now, light the cave up. No, don’t use matches. Don’t use candles. Don’t use a flashlight, or your phone. No—you light it up yourself, without the help of anything else. I have to ask–how’s that working for you?
It is in situations such as this where we come face to face with the reality that we are not the light. We are utterly dependent upon something outside ourselves to provide light in dark places. We will sit in the darkness forever unless the earth turns enough that the sun begins to shine where we live. We will sit in the darkness of the cave or a dark room until someone turns on a flashlight or a table lamp. In the same way, we as humans remained in the darkness of our evil, sin, and death until the One who made the light-givers—the sun, moon, and stars, and fire—came to bring us into his Light.
This brings us to the concept of discipleship and making disciples. This Jesus, who is the Light, called Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him. Later he called John and James as well. Jesus called them into the Light, to live and walk in the light of his presence. These men walked with Jesus day by day, being truly themselves within the context of a mentoring relationship. Jesus saw them at their best and at their worst, and spoke both grace and truth into them.
This is what discipleship looks like. Often, we want our relationship with God to be on our terms, where we follow him when it is comfortable to do so and we are able to keep a good image up in front of those around us. True spiritual community, though, allows for the capacity to make mistakes, own our failures, and seek to make amends or to work at making better choices. There must be room for both grace and truth within the body of Christ, in the spiritual communities in which we live, work, and play.
Inner healing, the transformation Christ began in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and is working out here below in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in individual hearts and minds, is something which best happens within the context of healthy spiritual community. There must be room to be transparent, authentic and honest, while also allowing ourselves to be held accountable for the unhealthy and inappropriate choices we make which wound ourselves and others. There must be an ability to feel safe, loved, and accepted as we turn ourselves more fully to the Light.
Most of us do not want to be connected with others at this deep level. We don’t want this much exposure to the Light. We prefer to live and walk in darkness—with the ability to call our own shots and do things our own way without consequences. But living and walking in this deep connectedness is what we are created for. This is the nature of eternal life, of knowing and being known by God and others—true fellowship. And this is why Jesus came—to include us in the genuine fellowship or communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.
What we as the body of Christ so often fail to do is to create true Christian community, where people are able to expose themselves fully to the Light of God and still receive his love, grace and truth. We, as followers of Christ, must be willing to leave behind all that we cling to, all that we lean on for light, and turn to the One Light, Jesus Christ, and be as that Light to those around us. At the same time, the moon above reminds us of our calling to reflect the living Light Jesus Christ to those who are caught in the darkness. We are not meant to keep the Light to ourselves but to be bringing others into the Light.
How comfortable are we with people who are still absorbed with living in the darkness? How do we respond to those who are still hiding behind their mask of good behavior and words while remaining in the darkness of evil, sin, and death? Who can we begin to pray for and start including in our life, bringing them along the road to the Light of God? Perhaps today we can have that conversation or make that phone call—and encourage them to turn to the light of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ, and join us as we live in the Light.
Dear Abba, forgive us for our preference for darkness so we can hide our evil thoughts and deeds. We turn ourselves to your Light, to your Son Jesus, and receive the Light of your presence and power in the Holy Spirit. Move in and through us to bring others into your Light as well, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness | Will see a great light; | Those who live in a dark land, | The light will shine on them.” Isaiah 9:1-2 NASB
“The LORD is my light and my salvation; | Whom shall I fear? | The LORD is the defense of my life; | Whom shall I dread?” Psalm 27:1 NASB
See also Matthew 4:12–23.
(1) Accessed at https://getpocket.com/explore/item/what-this-drawing-taught-me-about-four-dimensional-spacetime?utm_source=pocket-newtab on 1/17/2020.
By Linda Rex
Thanksgiving Day did not go as I had planned. I worked really hard on Wednesday preparing food for a large number of people who had signed up to have Thanksgiving Day dinner with me at the church. My outreach partner Pat worked equally hard to have everything ready for our guests. One of the guests, Sarena, had struggled to prepare some items to bring, burning herself in the process of making it. Thursday noon finally arrived, though, and we were prepared. It was going to be a great feast!
And we waited. A few people came. We talked, laughed, and finally, about an hour after the announced time and with less than half our expected guests, we decided to start eating. The food turned out okay, I thought. And the company was pleasant. The music made us want to dance. There were a few bumps and bruises, but for the most part, it was a great meal. But we regretted we could not share it with more people.
I thought about this yesterday and today, and it brought to mind the story Jesus told of the banquet invitations which were sent out but not responded to, and how they even gathered people from the streets nearby to fill the seats. Those who came and sat at the table were the ones who were able to participate in the joy of the celebration, not the ones who didn’t show up.
But how often in life have I been the one who didn’t show up? What about the time my child was to receive a special award in a ceremony at school and I had to be at work? And the time when my friend celebrated a special occasion and I completely forgot about it?
And I have to admit that there have been times in my life where I believed that God should have showed up and didn’t. I may have expected him to “show up”, and I may have wanted him to do something specific to demonstrate to me than indeed he was present, but God didn’t seem to think that that was something he needed to do at the time or that was in my best interests—and that was hard to take.
But we can focus so hard on what wasn’t or isn’t that we miss what was and is. Perhaps not as many people showed up as said that they would, but those who did had a good time, and enjoyed a festive meal with us. Yes, it may have been disappointing to have done all that work and not have things turn out as expected, but on the other hand, it was a joyful celebration of God’s many blessings. We had a good time, for the most part, ate some excellent food, I thought, and had some real good meaningful conversations as well as humor and laughter.
Like I said—it’s easy to focus on what didn’t happen, who wasn’t there, and not on the reality that God was present, and that relationships were encouraged and strengthened, and that people experienced friendship, fellowship, and caring. The ability to stand back and find gratitude in such situations comes as a gift from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us a heart of gratitude—Jesus’ thankful heart. That we can move beyond our regrets to gratitude for the pleasant gathering and good food, is God’s gift to us through Jesus in the Spirit.
I hope you all had a very lovely Thanksgiving Day, and were able to enjoy time with friends and family, renewing relationships and giving thanks to God for all his abundant blessings. As we come to the end of this calendar year and tomorrow celebrate Christ the King Sunday, may we give thanks to our Abba for giving us his Son and his Spirit, and for raising Christ victoriously from the grave to reign forever over all he has made. We are so very blessed to share in that victorious reign in Christ by the Spirit. May he rule in our hearts today and forever, filling us forever with his heart of gratitude.
Dear Abba, thanks. Thanks for each and every thing. Thanks for all the dear friends and family we have in our lives to love us and to celebrate with us. Thanks for the abundance and benefits you provided. Apart from you, we have nothing—so we praise you now and forever, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.
“Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’” NASB
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
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
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
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