forgiveness

It’s Just Not Who We Are

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By Linda Rex

In the past few years it has been brought to my mind over and over how our relationship with God is very much like that of an expectant mother, and our relationships with one another are very much like the cells in a human body. These are only analogies and they have their shortcomings and flaws, but they provide windows into the human soul and our human existence.

This morning I was reminded again how wonderful our bodies are. When something foreign enters our skin or enters our bodies, if we have a healthy immune system, the object or alien cell is immediately surrounded and attacked. The self-defense system within our human bodies is really amazing, but it has been known to even attack an unborn child if the antibodies are triggered by any antigens within the fetus. Obviously, this is not what antibodies were meant to do, but it can and does happen.

I pray God will help each of us to see ourselves as human beings held in the life and love of God, who upholds all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). And to see ourselves as sharers in Jesus Christ who has in his life, death, resurrection and ascension has made us participants in his very being, in his perfected humanity. For then we might begin to grasp—and I myself struggle to fully grasp this—sin and evil are alien to our true being. Any way of being which brings death instead of true life—the life Jesus brought us into—the life and love which exists in the Father, Son, Spirit relations—is foreign to our true humanity.

Maybe it’s time we begin to see our human proclivity to do what is evil and unhealthy from the point of view in which it is foreign to who we are. As the apostle Paul said, “if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” (Romans 7:20). That which is not you or me is what we find ourselves doing, even when we do not wish to do it. The desire to do what is life-giving and loving comes from God the Spirit, not our natural human flesh. When we are awakened to Christ in us, we find we want to do what creates harmony, joy, peace and communion, not division, destruction and death.

As humans, we have been joined with Christ in the hypostatic union of God and man which he took on as the Word of God in human flesh. Jesus Christ took our broken humanity with him through the process of forging out a sinless life, he hauled us with him onto the cross, and with him we died the death we deserve to die. In Christ, as he rose from the grave, our humanity has taken on a new form. We do not live anymore in our human brokenness because God in Christ by his Spirit is awakening us to a new way of being which he has created—Christ in us, the hope of glory.

This new way of being is who we really are—this is our true humanity. Persons living in union and communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit, and with one another, are who we were created to be. To live in opposition to the perfected humanity which is found in Christ is to live in opposition to who we really are. We are the beloved children of Abba, sharers in the perfect relationship which exists between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. We are created to reflect and to live in this way of being—where our personhood is bound up in these inner relations in God, and in loving relationship with one another.

So saying that, the elephant in the room is our proclivity to not live in the truth of who we are in Christ. In other words, there are a lot of things we think, say, and do which do not agree with who God has created us to be. We live with others and with God in ways which are self-centered, greedy, lustful and broken, and which bring death rather than life. We are created for life, not death. But we find so many ways to live in death and sometimes we even imagine these wrong ways of living bring about life.

We walk in darkness, not realizing the Light of God shines in us and through us. We even think following a bunch of rules, manmade or God-breathed, will give us life, forgetting that our real Life is found in a Person, Jesus Christ, and in our relationship with Abba through Jesus in the Spirit.

Our sinfulness is not our bad self, and our obedience to God and his ways is not our good self. We are not divided in two. We talk about bad people and good people, and I wonder whether we have ever considered exactly what it means to be a bad person or a good person. Exactly how much badness makes someone a bad person? And just how much goodness is needed to make someone good instead of bad?

What a revelation it can be when we realize we are all just a messy mixture of dark and light, of bad and good—we are all just very human. And as humans, made in the image of God, warts and all, we are, in Christ, God’s beloved and forgiven children. That’s who we are!

Evil and the evil one are constantly seeking to destroy this new body of Christ, as members in particular and as the corporate body. But the sins and sinful passions of our broken human flesh do not define us. Christ defines us. We are citizens of a new kingdom. And even though we don’t always live like we belong to the kingdom of light, we do indeed belong there.

We’ve been given the glorious clothing of the kingdom of light to wear, and we have the privilege of living moment by moment in a close, personal relationship with the King of the kingdom right now. We have a new humanity we are able to fully participate in because the old is rapidly passing away—in fact, in Christ it is already gone.

Maybe it’s time to quit listening to the lies and sitting in the dark, and awaken to the reality we are already a part of a kingdom of light which has been in the works since before the beginning of time—an absolutely amazing kingdom in which righteousness dwells. Maybe it’s time to embrace our true humanity.

Lord Jesus, thank you for including us in your life with the Father by the Spirit. Thank you, Father, for drawing us up into the life and love between you and your Son in the Spirit. Enable us to turn a deaf ear to evil and the evil one, and to never again fear death, knowing we are hidden with Christ in you, God. Amen.

“On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining.” 1 John 2:8 NASB

“For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another;…” 1 John 3:11 NASB

A Simply Divine Outfit!

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by Linda Rex

Last week I did my best to come up with a blog to post, but due to my involvement with vacation bible school (VBS), and other family and work responsibilities, I found myself drawing on empty when it came time to write. But I would like to share what stood out in my mind from our work with the young people in the Old Hickory community.

The topic of our VBS last week was the armor of God. At first, when we were reviewing the curriculum at one of our planning meetings, I and others were struck by the emphasis it had on our human efforts to put away sin and defend ourselves against Satan’s attacks. Our challenge was to revise the curriculum in such a way as to put Jesus Christ as the foundation and center of it rather than our own human efforts.

It is my personal belief what is lost in most discussions and devotions about the armor of God is the reality that each part of the armor is in essence Jesus Christ himself. Even the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, points us to the living Word, Jesus Christ. To separate each part out individually as if it stands on its own is to miss the point of this whole passage.

Paul starts out this section of scripture by saying, “…be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” God’s might is our might, his strength our strength. In Jesus by the Spirit we have the capacity to resist evil and the evil one. It’s not something we have to figure out or do on our own.

We need to beware of any way of looking at scripture which casts us back upon ourselves, as if we are capable of resisting or overcoming evil on our own, or are responsible to do so. Trying to overcome or resist evil on our own by keeping the law or doing lots of good deeds is basically human religion. And such a religion does not save us—rather it can enslave us and bind us to unhealthy and unfruitful ways of living and being.

What Paul seems to be saying here in Ephesians 6 is we have an adversary who is always scheming against us, and there are forces of evil at work which impact our lives on a daily basis. But we have a simply divine outfit laid out on the bed for us—we just need to put it on and stand firm in Christ, while resisting the devil’s efforts to deceive or distract us.

Salvation isn’t something we have to make sure we run to the boutique and buy, but rather something Christ has already done in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have been delivered from sin and death by the Son of God, who was victorious over them. But there is an action we do—we pick up the helmet of salvation, and we put it on. We experience a change in our mind and heart—we repent and turn away from our self-centered ways of thinking and being, and we turn to Christ. We stop trusting in our human efforts to save ourselves and start trusting in Christ instead. We put on Christ.

The thing is, the helmet of salvation isn’t something you take off and put back on. Salvation just is, because Christ has done it and won’t go back on his action of taking our humanity on and redeeming it. So we just receive this gift and live in the truth of it from now on. Our decision to live in the reality of our salvation in Christ does not alter whether or not Jesus saved us. It merely enables us to enjoy all the benefits of what he has done for us and in our place, and what he is doing today by his Holy Spirit. It is life-transforming.

This theme of putting on Christ can be found throughout this whole discussion about the armor of God. When we put on Jesus Christ, we are wrapping around ourselves the truth of who God is and who we are in him. Jesus is our belt of truth. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life—we draw our being and life from him as the One through whom and by whom all things were created. As made in the image of God, through the Spirit we reflect Jesus Christ, the One who is both God and man—he is our perfected humanity. The truth about our existence is found in him. Whatever lies may be said to us or we may believe need to be held up against this plumbline, recognized for what they are, and discarded. The truth of our being, which is found in Jesus Christ, orients us toward our true north, our heavenly Father, in every area of our lives as we live and work in community with others.

The gospel of peace—how the Word of God took on our humanity to bring us peace with God and peace with one another—is the story of our lives. This good news, who is our Savior Jesus Christ, has transformed our lives, and we spend our existence sharing this good news with others. We don’t hold grudges or refuse to forgive people’s slights against us because we are living in the reality of and sharing with others the immense gift of grace given to us from God through our Lord Jesus Christ. All the human barriers we place between ourselves are removed in Christ, because he has made us one in himself, taking on our humanity and redeeming it. Because Christ is our life, we walk in him in the Spirit, in this path of grace and peace he has walked before us, in our place and on our behalf.

As we put on Christ as our footwear, we also put him on as our righteousness. Jesus is our right relationship with God and one another. God has reconciled to himself all things in Jesus Christ. In Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are brought up into the very life and being of God himself, at one with the Father, Son, and Spirit, and in Christ, made at one with every other human being. We put on Christ by living in the truth of our reconciliation and our right relationship, by being truly reconciled with God and one another, because of Jesus’ finished work.

Even when it comes to faith, we are reminded to turn to Christ for the faith we need when we are being assaulted by the lies of the evil one. The one weapon the devil uses against us over and over again is the lie which says God is not good and is not trustworthy, and he does not really love and care about us. When these lies begin to overwhelm us, we need to draw upon Christ’s perfect faith. Jesus trusted his Father implicitly, even when he hung dying on the cross and it seemed to his human mind his Father had forsaken him. Jesus’ perfect faith caused him to trust his Father even at the very end of his suffering—this faith is ours. All we need to do is ask—to pick up the shield—to put on Christ.

So we have put on Christ, and it seems it is not enough for us just to have our armor on. God also gives us an offensive weapon—the sword of the Spirit. The capacity of the word of God to penetrate down to the core of our being is made possible through the living Word, Jesus Christ, by his gift of the Spirit from the Father. It is Christ at work in us by his Spirit which transforms us and enables us to effectively live out and share the gospel of peace. It is the Spirit of truth at work within which enlightens us and enables us to see and walk in the truth who is Jesus. Any faith or righteousness which may well up within us is the work of the Spirit, who writes God’s ways on our minds and hearts, gives us the heart to obey, and enables us to live in accordance with the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.

The centrality of Christ to this entire discussion on the armor of God can be clearly seen when we start and begin with Jesus as the One who is the Word of God come into our human flesh. This can be a comforting and encouraging study when we do it this way. It’s not up to us to do this battle with the enemy all by ourselves. Rather, it is a battle Jesus already fought and won, and he shares his decisive victory with us as we respond to the Spirit’s work, and put on and use the divine outfit he created for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus Christ is our mighty warrior, and we get to participate by the Spirit in his perfect deliverance against sin, evil, and death. What a blessing!

Dear Abba, thank you for giving us, in Jesus and by your Spirit, total victory over evil, sin, and death. Thank you for giving us this perfect armor to wear, and the sword of the Spirit to wield. Grant us the grace to daily put on Christ and to respond fully to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, and in the world around us. May we trust in you fully, resting in Christ, and drawing upon the Spirit each day. Amen.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:10–17 NASB

The Death and Renewal of Community

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by Linda Rex

This week I was reading an article about the recent upswing in homicides which has been happening in our church neighborhood. Although it’s hard to know exactly what is sparking this upswing in these individual events which don’t seem to have any tie to one another, the article made an interesting observation: “…most shootings are not completely random. If you look closely, they’re often fallout of interpersonal conflict that can go back and forth over months or even years.” ( See http://nashvillepublicradio.org/post/homicides-spike-east-nashville-precinct-its-commander-looks-answers#stream/0 )

Everywhere I look I am beginning to see and sense a deep sense of rage underlying people’s response to politics, relationships, and even stopping too long at a red light. It seems to me that we are growing into a generation who do not know how to have healthy relationships or how to handle conflict in healthy ways. It’s so much easier to defriend someone on Facebook than to have a difficult conversation in which healthy limits are set and respected by each person involved.

But there is a reality we cannot ignore and it is that in spite of all our efforts to create an orderly, safe society, we cannot create one by simply legislating right behavior and enforcing laws. I believe there is a fundamental disconnect between our desire to be free individuals who can make our own choices and live our own agenda, and the reality of living in community. This is because living in loving, respectful community requires a change in our being, not just in our doing. And that is the issue.

We have, whether we want to admit it or not, an inner drive to be our own masters and in control of what we do and don’t do. We also want to be free to live uninhibited by rules or the control of another human being—unless of course, giving that control over to another person allows us to feel in control of our safety and peace. We want to be free to do what we want, when we want, how we want, without God (if we believe there is one) or anyone else telling us otherwise.

The problem with this type of freedom and control is, we live in a world with millions of other people who also have this same desire for freedom and control. When one person’s desires and plans clash with another’s—we have conflict. When one group’s agenda clashes with another group’s agenda, we end up with war. And this is not what we were created for.

Such an intense desire to be free and rulers over our own lives is not necessarily an evil thing in and of itself. In many ways it is a reflection of the God in whose image we were created. God has given us this world and our lives to be responsible for—they are ours to care for, use responsibly, and to share with others. And we need to be doing those things. And God, in his being, is fully and completely free. We reflect that.

But we need to realize God’s freedom is not the type of freedom we believe we were created with and for. This is a different kind of freedom from just doing what you want, when you want, and how you want. God’s freedom is held within his real existence as a Being who lives in other-centered love. The Word of God who came into our human flesh revealed to us a God who is Father, Son and Spirit and who lives in a relationship of equality, diversity and unity which the church fathers would later call circumincession or perichoresis.

These are interesting terms. The first one, circumincession, was used to express an ongoing movement of pouring out from one into another and receiving in return. If we were to give this some consideration, we would realize we as human beings, made in the image of this God, were designed to be other-centered persons who live in a constant existence in which we pour out from ourselves into others so we may receive that which is poured out into us. This constant pouring out and receiving is a movement which exists within true loving community.

A misguided sense of personal freedom shortcircuits true community. When a person turns away from those around them and seeks only to receive and not to give, this kills healthy relationship. The natural give and take which should occur between people cannot because there are walls between them, or there is abuse, neglect, indifference—you name it. We do all these things to one another because we are broken. And we find ourselves unable or unwilling to live together with others in the mutual submission, the compassion and understanding, and the mutual giving and receiving we were created for.

In my opinion, we do not need more rules to live by. Rules just create in us a desire to break them or to beat other people over the heads with them. We don’t need more legislators or enforcers. What we need is to realize and live out the truth of what God meant for us to be from the beginning. We need a deep realization of who we are, and whose image we were created to reflect, and to begin to live out of this center or core in our being.

God created us with good hearts, to live in loving relationship—this is the truth of our being. When we don’t live in this way, we are miserable and we make everyone around us miserable too. It seems we choose to live in misery, and God knew that wasn’t what we were created for. So he came himself in Jesus and allowed us to dump on him all the rage and evil of our broken humanity. And in doing so, he restored our broken humanity.

God’s purpose in allowing what we did to Jesus was to provide each one of us with the capacity for true humanity again. God gives us through his Son Jesus and by his Spirit what we really need—a change of heart and mind. We need a change of being which will drive a change in our doing. We need to be transformed by grace. So God in Jesus Christ made a way.

When a person comes to themselves—i.e. realizes they are not living as they were created by God to live, and not being the person they were created by God to be—it is a humbling experience. And I think God intends us to come to this place over and over in our lives, not so we can beat ourselves up, but so that we will face our need for him to heal, transform and renew us, and so we will invite him to enter in and begin to create in us anew the capacity for true, healthy relationship with God and with the people in our lives.

This is the whole purpose of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Spirit creates true community among all people, because all people have been included in Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. The Spirit can be resisted, rejected, and even quenched, but this gentle Dove works diligently to resolve differences, to renew relationships and to heal wounded hearts. The Spirit can be invited to stay or be ignored. Either way, the Spirit is still present and at work—it is our experience of God’s presence which is unfelt or felt.

When we open ourselves to the Spirit’s work, we experience the reality that Christ is here in the midst of us, drawing each and every one us together into loving community. I am more and more convinced each day what we really need in our neighborhood, and throughout our world, is for God by his Spirit to breathe new life into each of us.

Darkness and evil will continue to resist the Spirit of life and truth. But in time Light will drives away the darkness, for darkness is merely the absence of light. Those who live and walk in the Light of God’s love and grace need to be willing to share in the sufferings of Jesus—for truth and grace are always resisted in some way. May we have the strength and wisdom to continue to demonstrate in a real way in spite of resistance and opposition what it means to live in loving community, and to suffer for the sake of love and grace, through Jesus our Lord, and by his Spirit.

Abba, thank you for the gift of your love, truth and grace. Thank you for rescuing us from evil, sin and death through your Son Jesus, and for sending us your Spirit so we could begin to recognize and experience true community. We pray you will breathe your Life into our neighborhood and indeed our world so we can live once again in the love and fellowship we were created for. Drive out the darkness with your Light. Enable us to experience the truth of the perichoretic life we were created for. In your Name Jesus we pray. Amen.

“You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Eph 4:20–24 NASB

The Consuming Fire of Love

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by Linda Rex

At our group discussion last Wednesday night we were talking about how misdirected anger can ruin relationships. On the one hand, we dump our anger in violent and hurtful ways, and on the other, we stuff and deny our anger in many ways which are ultimately self-destructive. Neither use of our anger is healthy, nor do they serve the real purpose for us experiencing anger in the first place.

We misdirect our anger. We may be angry at one person, and tell others all about it, but never deal directly with the person who is the cause of our anger. Some of us deny our anger and bury it, but the anger which demands expression manifests itself in psychosomatic illnesses, passive-aggressive behavior, and/or depression. Sometimes we are angry about something someone has done to us or said to us, and we begin to behave in ways which are painful and destructive toward people we love and value.

I’ve heard so many stories in recent times about people expressing a deep-seated anger through violence. For example, when some people are frustrated about their inter-racial issues, they express that anger by destroying and looting businesses. I’m always nervous about having ticked someone off in traffic, because I don’t know if they will pull out a gun and shoot me! These expressions of anger are nonproductive and destructive—they don’t solve anything. They only create more problems and more misery.

So much of our anger is retributive. In other words, our anger is a response to a violation of some kind in which we judge that person worthy of punishment or destruction. We seek vengeance—to give them what we believe they deserve. We condemn them and pour out our anger on them in destructive ways.

Some of us realize this is a wrong response, but we still feel in our heart of hearts we want them to “get what they deserve”—to reap what they have sown. We might even be angry with God when he doesn’t bring down the wrath of heaven on this person who so deserves to be punished with eternal fire.

Whether we realize it or not, it is this way of thinking and this belief system which influences how we read what is written in God’s word. We assume God is just like us—that he’s just hanging out in heaven looking for opportunities to crush anyone who misbehaves. When we read “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), we think we are being told this very thing—that God’s anger is going to consume anyone who violates God’s holy standards.

But the reality is, if God’s anger were going to consume any and every person who violates God’s holy standards, we would all have been wiped off the face of the earth millennia ago. This isn’t who God is. He’s not that type of Being. God’s anger doesn’t annihilate and destroy—it refines, renews, and restores. The truest expression of God’s wrath is not against human beings, but against the evil which infests their souls and twists their lives, and expresses itself in so many hurtful ways in our world.

The truest expression God’s wrath against sin and evil was in the Person and Presence of his Son Jesus Christ. First of all, the Son of God the Word took on our human flesh—he entered our darkness. Jesus encountered evil face-to-face within himself and forged for us a humanity unbound by sin and evil. He willingly limited himself to living as a human being, dependent fully upon his Father and the Spirit, and allowed himself to be rejected, tormented, and crucified.

Secondly, he permitted us as human beings to pour out on him all of our fear of a Punishing God, and all of our anger against this God, and all of our refusal to repent of our determination to be God in God’s place. Humanity’s response to whatever God they have worshipped so often has been a fearful “expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire.” We realize even turning our back on Jesus and what he has done for us means we deserve an even greater punishment and destruction. But no matter what we may believe about God and his feelings about our sin and sinful rejection of him, the truth is manifest in our Lord Jesus Christ: we are forgiven, accepted, and beloved. And we can’t seem to get our minds around that.

God’s wrath, his anger, is not so much aroused against each of us as it is against the evil and sin which consume us. His judgment of you and me and every other person who lives is that we are worthy of love, and we need to be rescued from sin, evil, and death. He has done a major part of the work by coming himself in Jesus, taking on our humanity, and allowing himself to be crucifed, and by wonderfully rising from the dead after sharing our death. He is busily working out the other part by his Holy Spirit as we embrace his presence in our world and in our hearts and lives.

Quite honestly, falling into the hands of the living God may be a terrifying thing to us, but it is the best possible thing which could happen. Being judged by the Lord means he goes to work to remove anything which is holding us captive, or causing us and others pain. It means we allow God to begin to transform our hearts and lives as we surrender to his will and his ways. We begin to acknowledge and live within the truth of the reality we have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light.

But this is so hard for us. When God goes to work, we abdicate our insistence we are the lord of the universe. We surrender to his lordship and begin to do things his way rather than our way. He becomes the purpose for our lives rather than our selfish desires or opinions. And this is why we resist the Spirit and his work in our hearts and lives. Submitting to the living Lord who submitted himself to us and our rejection of him over two thousand years ago doesn’t come naturally.

Considering the reality of how God deals with our sin and our anger against him, it is worth reflecting on how we respond to evil and how we deal with the anger we feel when we are violated in some way. Jesus took all evil and anger upon himself centuries ago, and what is left is our need to forgive, accept and love. Jesus is the truest expression of grace and truth—and this is what we need in our relationships with one another: grace and truth.

If and when we feel angry, we look with the eyes of Jesus. We start with, in what way have I or others been violated? This is a place of truth and truth-telling. We need to face ourselves and others with integrity—who am I angry with? And why?

If we are angry with God, that’s okay. He can take it. We just need to be honest about it and engage him in face-to-face ongoing conversation about our anger against him. It is not a sin to be angry with God—sin arises when we try to deny or suppress or misdirect our anger.

Another question we need to ask ourselves is, what about this situation am I able to change? And how to I go about changing it? Once we have our answer, we need to go do it, or get help doing it. We need to go have that difficult conversation with that difficult person and quit putting it off or triangulating to others. We need to place and enforce those healthy boundaries which have been missing in our relationship with someone, or we need to end an unhealthy, destructive relationship which is causing us harm. We need to use our anger as a springboard to change, healing and wholeness.

And we also ask ourselves, what about this situation must be surrendered to the grace of God in Christ? And how to I go about forgiving and accepting this wrong which has been done? And we begin to do the hard work of forgiveness and acceptance. This doesn’t let the person who has hurt us off the hook so much as it releases them to God’s work of transformation in their lives, and relieves us of the twisting of our soul which comes through resentment and bitterness.

These are all positive, healing ways of dealing with our anger which reflect the inner life and love of the Father, Son and Spirit. Living in this way better reflects the truth of Who God is and who we are in him. It creates a healthier, more joyful society in which to live. This is what God is, in his wrath against sin and in his judgment, preparing us for. This is God’s heart for us as his beloved children, and it is what we were destined to enjoy forever in God’s presence through his Son Jesus and by his Spirit.

Abba, thank you for loving and forgiving us. Thank you for judging us worthy of love and grace rather than destruction and rejection. Finish what you have begun in us through Jesus by your Holy Spirit. You are an awesome, amazing God, and we love you. Amen.

“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Heb 10:26–31 NASB

Owning Our Stuff

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By Linda Rex

Yesterday, as the sun peeked out occasionally from storm clouds and a cool breeze kept us wishing for a jacket, we sat outside the church and talked. Good News Fellowship was stepping out of our comfort zone and had invited the community to stop by for the administration of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Although no one from the community joined us for this event, or for the Community Ash Wednesday service which followed, it was still a good opportunity for us to reflect on the reality of what Christ has done and is doing in our lives.

As a denomination, in the past we have not celebrated this particular day or tradition. But our pastoral team felt it was an opportunity for us to open our doors and begin to step outside of them, offering others an opportunity to share with us the good news of what God has done and is doing in our lives.

As I studied the common practices for the observation of Ash Wednesday, I was struck by the focus on our humanity—“from dust you came, and to dust you will return”—and by the emphasis on repentance and penitence. As we move into the Lenten season, a season of fasting, prayer and repentance, Ash Wednesday provides a good marker and way of getting us focused on and looking forward to the events of Holy Week and the resurrection of Jesus.

It is a good thing to be reminded we are made from dust and will return to dust. There is a sense of humility which comes from realizing apart from the grace of God, we would have no existence at all. In fact, we only exist because of the love and grace of a God who determined before time began we would share in his glory.

I was reminded, though, that any thought of repentance or penitence needs to be kept within the reality of who God is, who Christ is, and who we are in him. We begin not by gazing at ourselves, our faults and failures, but first at the God who created us and made us his own. This God isn’t focused on our limitations or our weaknesses, but on the relationships he created us for, and on the love he has for us.

One of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday this year was Joel 2:1–2, 12–17. These particular verses leapt out at me: “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.” (Joel 2:12–13 NASB) The prophet Joel placed the call to repentance within the framework of who God is, just as God had described himself to Moses so many centuries before, a God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth (Exodus 34:6-7).

God indeed wants us to own our stuff, to face up to the truth of how we fall short as human beings. But he more importantly, wants us to face up to the truth of who he is—the kind of God who is loving and forgiving, not cruel, condemning and rejecting. In giving us his Son Jesus Christ, God didn’t push us away in our brokenness, but rather brought us close, joining with us in our sin and shame, washing it away, and drawing us into deeper relationship with himself.

In fact, one of the first things which occurred in Jesus’ life after his baptism, when he heard the words of blessing from his Father “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”, was being, in effect, “cast out” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted of the devil. This forty days of fasting and testing, this penitence, was done on our behalf, for our sake. Jesus took the road of repentance we need to take, where we own our stuff and we choose to turn to God in faith rather than make our own way to glory.

As we enter this season of penitence, this Lenten season of reflection on our need for deliverance and salvation, I feel it is essential we begin with the reality of God’s love and mercy rather than just ending with it. Start with owning what is ours—the gift of forgiveness, and love which comes from the heart of our loving Father—as well as his Spirit who works in us our transformation and healing. And in the light of that, we look at our fallenness and need for grace.

When we keep these things in that order, then repentance is not a move toward despair and despondency, but rather a move toward joyful gratitude. We are compelled to say, “Thank you, Lord, for your mercy.” This is why I could not bring myself just to tell people as I administered the ashes “You came from dust and you will return to dust.” For me, it seemed to leave them in the dust in despair—that doesn’t seem to be what God had in mind. Why else would we have Christ at all?

To me repentance is an essential part of our walk as followers of Jesus Christ. We confess our fallenness, our brokenness, our ungodly ways of living and being. But we do it all in the context of the forgiveness which is already ours and available to us in Jesus Christ. We act as if we are forgiven and act as if we are healed. This is why I felt compelled to use these words in the administration of the ashes this year, “You came from dust, and you will return to dust. So thank the Lord Jesus for joining you in your dust and lifting you up to glory.”

Perhaps I will see things differently in the future—God is always working to heal, transform and renew. But in owning our stuff, I believe we not only need to own our fallen and broken ways of living and being, but also the heart of our loving Father who in Christ and by his Spirit says to us, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Owning our stuff means owning the reality we are forgiven, accepted and cherished by the God who calls us his own, and living and acting as though it were true.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the great love which compelled you to not only create us out of the dust of the earth and to breathe your life into us, but to also send your Son to join us in our humanity and to raise us up to live with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace of true repentance and faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 32
A psalm of David.
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the LORD has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty!

When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.

Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time, that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment. For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory.

The LORD says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”

Many sorrows come to the wicked, but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the LORD. So rejoice in the LORD and be glad, all you who obey him! Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!” (NLT)

Running from Relationship

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by Linda Rex

Do you ever get the feeling you would like to leave everything and everyone behind and go hide in a forest somewhere where no one can find you? Sometimes we can get so sick of all the human drama in our lives, we would prefer to live the rest of our lives alone on some island out in the Pacific. Indeed, especially for us introverts, being left all alone with just our thoughts and our personal pursuits may sound a lot like heaven.

However well-intentioned our escape from humanity may be, we cannot escape the reality we were created for loving relationship with God and each other. Often the struggle is not with the relationship part of this, but in that we have to do relationship with other people who may be difficult and hard to understand. We may struggle with knowing how to communicate well, or with understanding what to do in certain social situations. These things don’t come naturally to everyone. Some of us really wrestle with the daily necessity to interact with other human beings.

On top of that, we often experience relational hurts, both as children and as adults. Those hurts we receive as children directly affect our ability to form and retain healthy attachments with others as adults. Extremely unhealthy relationships affect our response to healthy ones, whether we realize it or not. What we do to one another as human beings has consequences in our ability to live in loving relationship with one another the way God created us to.

I remember years ago talking with my pastor after services and telling him he scared me. He would really get into proving his point in his sermon and half scare me to death because he would raise his voice while doing it. In the environment of a tiny congregation, it felt as though he was yelling right at me.

I realized after a while the problem wasn’t with him raising his voice to emphasize a point—that can be a necessary part of preaching. The problem was with me—it created a flashback to the times in my marriage when I was yelled at and things were thrown when I didn’t measure up to a certain someone’s expectations. I could not cope with the raised voice in church because I related it to the intense emotional dumping I had experienced in the past in my significant relationship.

Now, I suppose if I had been raised in a family where emotional dumping was the natural course of human interaction, I might have known how to deal with it, or at least how to cope with it. But in my experience, family members kept things to themselves and did not have emotional outbursts. We were a family of introverted nerds, so communicating with others was always a challenge for all of us, with the possible exception of my mother.

In my family’s way of looking at life, we would have all been healthier and happier if we could each have had an acreage in the country where we didn’t have to interact with our neighbors, or worry about property lines or stray pets, or all the other annoying factors involved in human interactions. In fact, in many ways, in our effort to have any relationships with others at all, we avoided any real interaction with anyone.

What I’m trying to say is, we can live in relationship with others while at the same time not really having any real heart-to-heart, authentic, transparent interactions with them. We can have such effective walls in our hearts and minds we don’t allow anyone to really get close to us and find out the truth of who we really are inside. These protective walls are what we create in our effort to survive in a world where people hurt people, and they are magnified by an understanding and belief in a God who is critical and condemning rather than loving and forgiving.

Healing from these kinds of wounds takes time, and can require a wealth of healthy experiences with people who build us up rather than tear us down. Sometimes we need to spend time with a qualified counselor who can walk with us through our wounds and enable us to find the healing which is available for us in Jesus Christ. In other words, the best way to heal from relational wounds is within the context of healthy relationships—with our kind, loving, and forgiving God and with other kind, loving, and forgiving human beings.

I have found over the years God grows us up as his children by placing us in situations where we are forced to learn how to deal with difficult people. And he does this, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the one who is being difficult. It is in our relationships with one another that we come to see ourselves more clearly.

God’s design in creating us in his image was for us to reflect the image of God to one another. When I’m interacting with another human being, it is an opportunity for each of us to experience in a real and personal way what it looks like and feels like to live in the relationship of love and grace which exists within the Father, Son, Spirit relations in the Godhead. When we fail to live in outgoing concern, compassion, understanding and grace with one another, we fail to reflect the nature of the God who created us in his image. The Light we are to reflect is diminished, and we walk in darkness instead of in the light.

There is no room for hatred of another human being in God’s economy. That irritating ungodly person who is so annoying is our brother or sister who was also made in God’s image to reflect God’s likeness. That person is also a beloved child of God for whom Christ lived, died, rose again and sent his Spirit. That person we wish would go away and just jump off a cliff in the process, is someone God loves just as much as he loves you and me.

Part of the problem with isolationist Christianity is the neglect of the reality we were intended to love one another by rubbing up against one another relationally in such a way Christ is formed more perfectly in each of us and we experience the reality of God’s infinite love and grace in the process. If the divine Word was willing to set aside the privileges of divinity to enter into our human darkness as Jesus Christ to take on our humanity and experience all the negative consequences of such an act, how can we deny this to our brother and sister human beings?

Indeed, we can forget in the midst of all the struggles we are going through today in our world the example forged for us by Jesus Christ. The path through relational healing is often through the crucifixion—it will be painful and difficult and will include dying in some way. Dealing with unpleasant and difficult, and even toxic people requires being willing to die to our preferences, and being willing to suffer uncomfortable conversations and situations. We may need to stand to and oppose those who are doing evil. We may need to tell someone the truth about their abuse or addiction and force them to get help with it. We may need to draw some boundary lines in our relationships and enforce them, lovingly and graciously.

But this is what it means to love, to truly love one another. Exposing the love and grace of God at the heart of all true relationship is a challenge. It is also a process—a journey we take in relationship with the God who created us, and who loves us and who has, in advance, forgiven us for all our failures and shortcomings. Instead of running from relationship, may we take a bold step today and begin looking for safe, caring, respectful people to begin the process of relational healing with. And may we turn to Christ for the grace and power to learn to love and be loved as God intended.

Thank you, Father, for creating us in such a way we are meant for relationship with you and one another. Grant us the grace to open ourselves up to new relationships and to heal our brokenness within the context of healthy relationships. Teach us how to love the unlovely, and to forgive the unforgiveable, while at the same time calling others deeper into loving relationship with ourselves and with you. We know all of this is possible only in through our Lord Jesus Christ in whose Name by whose Spirit we pray. Amen.

“On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining. The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him.” 1 John 2:8–10 NASB

Sharing the Gift of Thanksgiving

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tn-hayfield

by Linda Rex

As I was driving through the Tennessee countryside this morning, I was soaking up the inherent beauty of the fall colors in the leaves of the trees and the deep blue of the clear sky. There is such a sense of God’s presence and nearness in his creation, especially when the plants, trees, animals and earth are just being who they were created to be. And how cool it is that we, as human beings and God’s creatures, get to be a part of reflecting God’s glory!

Last night I participated in a discussion at the Highland Heights Neighborhood Association meeting in which we talked about being aware of and sensitive to the needs of the people in the community who are marginalized and forgotten. In the light of this, as a neighborhood group working to improve our community, we asked the question, “Where do we go from here?” and “What can we do to help?”

Truthfully, there are people down the street from our church who live every day in such poverty and squalor they are not able, even if they wished, to soak up the beauty of the Tennessee countryside. They live in housing which is uninhabitable by modern standards, and have little hope for anything better. How, in the midst of the struggle of daily life, can they enjoy the best of life? What does it mean for them to just be who they were created to be? Is it even possible for them?

And indeed, how are they any different from you or me? They have this existence they have found themselves in and they, like you and me, seek to do the best they are able to along the way, trying to find and create life in the midst of death and poverty and struggle. They, like we do, breathe the same air, need the same food and water we do, and long to love and be loved, for that is what they, like we, were created for.

It would be easy to say, for example, that a particular group of people being considered last night as being in need were not part of our neighborhood therefore not a part of our responsibility. But indeed, we must never forget we are neighbor to each and every person in this world in our Lord Jesus Christ. In him we are connected at the center of our being to every other person who exists, no matter whether we like them or not. There is a core relatedness which Jesus Christ created in us and in himself which demands we treat each other as brothers and sisters, not as strangers or aliens.

And this is hard to do, because we as human beings are broken. We have addictions, mental and emotional and physical illnesses, and quirks which make us unpleasant people to be around. We have character flaws which sometimes make it unsafe for others to be around us. We have generational and personal habits and ways of being and talking which do not line up with who we are created to be in Jesus Christ, and they divide us from one another.

This morning I was looking at some photos from around the world taken over the last year which illustrated something significant which happened on that particular day. Most of the photos told the story of people in the midst of struggle—of war, refugees, destruction, natural disasters—all the ways in which people were wrestling with their desire for life in the midst of death and loss. Here and there was a picture of someone celebrating or worshiping, but they were few and far between.

It seems, apparently, struggle is a part of the human existence, whether we like it or not. Poverty, displacement, homelessness, and war plague us no matter where we live. Jesus said at one point, “…You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:8 NLT). There is a reality about our human existence and it is we do not live as we ought and we do not treat others as we ought, and so people end up living in ways they were never meant to have to live. Our human existence today is a reflection of how we seek to find life in the ways which only create destruction and death, and of how our earth is broken and reflects the harm we humans have done to it over the centuries.

It is no wonder the youth of our day sometimes feel a sense of despair and hopelessness. What kind of future do they have to look forward to? And what about our marginalized neighbors who expect to only see more of the same in the years ahead? What hope do they have?

I believe this is where we run into a fundamental flaw in our thinking as Christians. We see all this and can say, things are so bad we must be near the end of the world, so Jesus is going to come and punish all the bad people and establish his kingdom. This conveniently places everything back into the hands of an angry God who will deal with all this stuff so we don’t have to. It removes any need for us to encounter and deal with on a face-to-face basis the suffering of our neighbor right now, today, in our everyday lives.

I thought it was instructive last night that the heads more than once turned towards our end of the table and it was indicated that the churches in the neighborhood were expected to do something about the problems in the neighborhood. At the NOAH meeting, I heard the city officials say the non-profit organizations were the ones who ought to be solving the homelessness problem. Why do communities turn to God’s people with the needs of those who are homeless and poverty-stricken rather than to the government? What is it they believe we have and can do which cannot be found elsewhere?

At this point, I’m not really sure. But I do know this—when God goes to work in a human heart and mind, things change. When God goes to work in a community, things change. When God goes to work in a family, a church, an office or a city, things change. And one of the biggest changes to occur is a change in human hearts and minds.

It seems at times God doesn’t care as much about the poverty of our circumstances as he does about the poverty of our soul. The path to new life is through suffering and death, whether we like it or not. When he goes to work though, as hearts and minds are healed and renewed, circumstances in peoples’ lives change as well.

We as Christians need to realize the magnitude of what we bring to the table in the situations we face in our neighborhoods and in our world. We may have no power to fix the problems faced directly. But we do have the power of prayer and the community of faith. We do have the ability to walk with people through their times of darkness and to share with them the Light of life. We do have the ability to ease their suffering in some ways, even though in other ways we are impotent in being able to help.

The greatest thing we can do for others is to offer them a relationship of love and grace in which Jesus Christ is the center. We can come alongside others and share in the divine Paraclete’s ministry of counsel, intercession and comfort. We can share with others the blessings we have received from Abba so they may also experience the joy of thanksgiving as we do. We can work to help others to be and become those people God created them to be, so they may begin to enjoy the best of life, which is living in loving community with God and one another.

This is my heart and desire for the people of Tennessee, and for all people, for that matter. And I know it is also the heart and desire of our members at Good News Fellowship. We have been given our Abba’s heart of love and grace and we want to share it with others. We want all people to be overwhelmed just as we are with the overflowing joy of thanksgiving for our Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have given us true life in their presence both now and forever.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness, and for drawing us to yourself by your Son and in your Spirit, so we each and all may participate with you in a communion of love and grace both now and forever. Renew in us your heart of love and grace so we may love others with your perfect love and forgive as we are forgiven. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” Colossians 1:9–12 NASB