freedom

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 Gift of Trust

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by Linda Rex

Last time I ended my blog by asking the questions: Will we allow God the freedom to do as he wills in our lives, believing he will make all things right in the end, and has our best interests at heart? Will we respect God’s freedom to do what he will in our situation, trusting he is a good God, a loving and faithful God, who will never leave us or forsake us?

These are tough questions to respond to because often our response to them arises out of our personal experience and our attachment issues. We may never have had an experience in our lives in which a person was trustworthy and safe in their interactions with us.

Perhaps our only experience with men has been with those who have used us and then discarded us. Maybe our only living parent has always insisted on making every decision for us our entire life, and didn’t stop when we became an adult. It’s possible that the father we adored when he was alive was great fun to be around but never took responsibility for anything with regards to his family. There are many ways in which critical relationships in our lives wound us.

Our view of God, then, becomes skewed and we begin to believe things about God which are not true. Relationships and our relational losses are so critical to our understanding of ourselves and God! The thing is, too often we plant our broken view of humanity onto the face of God rather than seeing God as he really is, and viewing broken humanity in the light of who God is. We get it flipped around.

So it is very hard to trust a God who we believe is like these images in our mind which have been created through our experiences with the people around us in our lives, especially during our formative years. When God said to Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me,” (Ex. 20:3 NIV), he was telling them to set aside all their preconceived ideas of God. They had gathered a God-concept over the centuries which included the worship of things made by human hands as well as those things created by God.

Today we may not have idols in our house we worship (though some of us may), and we may not worship the sun, moon and stars (though some of us may), we do often worship a God of our own imagination—a being who exists only in our hearts and minds, but not in reality. For if we want to know who God really is, we need to pay attention to what God says about himself, and quit focusing on what we or others might imagine God to be.

This Sunday at Good News Fellowship we will be celebrating Palm Sunday. On this day, we are reminded about the enthusiastic welcome Jesus Christ received as he entered Jerusalem before the events of Holy Week. Here he was applauded as Messiah, come to save his people—which indeed he was. Yet within a few short days, he was crucified and he died at the hands of the very human beings he came to save.

The Messiah did not show up the way the people expected him to. Jesus was not the person they wanted him to be. God in human flesh? This meant Jesus had something crucial to say about the status quo, about the ruling authorities, and what it meant to be God’s people. And they all needed to listen and to obey. Israel, and indeed all humanity, was called to see God in a new and different way, and to repent of their wrong-headed view of God. Jesus was, and is, the exact representation, or ikon, of the Father, and he would send the Spirit, who was, and is, the other Helper or Paraclete, just like Jesus.

God had revealed himself to his people through Moses not only as the “I Am”, but also as the God who is, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished;…” (Ex 34:6–7 NIV) Here we see God as a relational God, who loves his people and is gracious toward them. Yes, he deals with the nasties, but all within the context of his covenant love.

God rescued his people from slavery, provided food and water for them in the wilderness, and brought them to a new land. Throughout his history with his people, he cared for them, called them by his Spirit back to their covenant relationship with him. God was who he was. It was Israel who needed to change their view of God—to have a new heart and mind. And God told them he would work this out by sending a messiah who would usher in the age of the Spirit.

The thing is, since time began, we as human beings have resisted the Spirit’s effort to open our minds and hearts about the truth of who God really is and who we are in him. We believe we are on our own, doing everything under our own power. We believe we are in control of ourselves, each other, this earth, and the universe, and at the same time are faced with the reality we really don’t have any control whatsoever.

Fundamentally what we need at the core of our being is a realization we are creatures, who are dependent upon the God who made us and who sustains us. This is a God who wants to live in a relationship with us in which we share intimately all of life. We were meant to walk and talk with God as Adam did at the beginning, and as is described by the apostle John in his gospel and in his description of the heavenly Jerusalem. And this type of relationship requires trust.

To go deep with someone, anyone, in this way requires a level of trust which is very deep. We climb, and climb up our mountain of life, thinking we’ve got to hold it all together and keep moving up to the next level, when what we need to do is let go and fall, trusting in the Everlasting Arms.

We are unable to make sure everything works out as it should—but God already knows the end from the beginning. We are unable to protect ourselves from evil or disaster, but God has the capacity to turn evil and disaster into the best experience of our lives. We feel lost and alone and unloved, but the reality is, we are held, we are beloved, and God never leaves us—he is Immanuel, the God who is present, near and available at all times.

It was this God who joined us in our mess, and walked among us, and was willing to submit to our mistreatment and rejection of him. He was willing to go with us all the way to the cross and to death so we could learn to trust him. There was nothing he was not willing to put on the line, even the inner relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit, so we could not only learn to trust him, but also receive by the Spirit a new heart and mind filled with Jesus’ trust for his Abba.

This is the blessing of the gift of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the gift of the Spirit. This gift is a life filled with trust and faith in God, in which we find ourselves able to know and see God for who he really is, and over time have our mistaken notions about God corrected and healed. This is a relationship which will never end but grow more precious with time, and will include others in joyful fellowship for all eternity.

Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit through whom we might come to know you for Who you really are. Fill our hearts with Jesus’ trust in you, so we might live in true, loving community both now and for all eternity. Through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“But I trust in you, LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me. Let your face on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.” Psalm 31:14–16 NIV

God’s Freedom to Say No

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By Linda Rex

I think one of the most difficult things for us as human beings to accept is God’s freedom to tell us “no.” For those of us with boundary issues, it can be even more difficult to accept, especially when we see no human reason why he should not say “yes” to what we may be wanting from him. If God is a good God, then why doesn’t he say “yes” to our requests, especially when they are important and good requests? Why do people suffer injustice, pain, loss, and other tragedies when God could so easily protect us all from evil and suffering?

There is something so tragic about someone who is caught due to circumstances beyond their control in a situation in which they must suffer loss, pain and/or grief which is overwhelming and debilitating. The human condition is such we face these type of events in our lives whether we like it or not. We cannot escape them, even when we want to. Some of us may try to find ways to escape the pain and suffering of life through addictions and distractions. But at some point, we all have to come face to face with the reality God sometimes says “no” to all our pleas for relief and deliverance.

The past few weeks in our Wednesday night small group we have been talking about boundaries, and how healthy and unhealthy ones are formed in the early years of life. Parents play a crucial role in a child’s development of boundaries which will enable them as adults to handle interpersonal and relational issues in heathy ways.

Our modern business world is looking for people with a high EQ or EI (emotional intelligence) rather than just a high IQ or intelligence, because business leaders understand the need for workers to be able to interact in healthy ways with their boss and their peers as well as with the customers they serve. So, teaching a child and a teen to respect other people’s boundaries as well as their own is important work to be done in their lives by a loving parent.

Every parent knows, if they are honest, there are times when they have to tell their child “no” but they really don’t want to. When a parent loves a child too much to tell them “yes” and tells them the “no” they need to hear but don’t want to hear, the parent may struggle with this process. How is it possible to tell a child “no” when it seems to cause them such suffering? Wouldn’t it be better to just let them have what they want?

The obvious answer, of course, is “no,” but that certainly doesn’t make it any easier for the parent to stand their ground. But stand their ground they must. And yet, there is always room for grace. Every parent needs to learn to listen to their child and to come to know their child’s heart.

Sometimes a child says “no” for really good reasons. And sometimes a child has a really good reason to ask their parent for something. This is where the parent can offer his or her child the opportunity to experience what it is like to have their healthy boundaries respected and honored. The critical piece here is the intimate relationship between the parent and the child.

What we see in action in this whole process is something called mutual submission. This is the mutual submission we see at work in the Triune relationship between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. C. Baxter Kruger explains their relationship in this way:

“Jesus lives by relating to God as his Father, by seeking him and knowing him as Father and loving him with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. His life is not really his at all, it is sonship. He never lives on his own, doing his own thing, following his own agenda. He has no self-interest. ‘Not what I will, but what you will be done (Mark 14:36); is not just the prayer in Gethsemane; it is the prayer of his whole life. …The Father is utterly riveted to his Son’s every move; he is the beloved Son. And the Son is in tune with his Father’s heart and filled with joyous passion for its pleasure. …This is a relationship of the deepest affections of the soul. There is no dead ritual, no façade or shame or hiding or reticence. The Jesus of the New Testament is so aware of God’s presence, so aware of the present God as his Father, and so confident in his relationship with him; and in turn his Father has such earnest joy in him and affection for him, that they share everything and live in utmost fellowship. The formula ‘Thou art my beloved Son’ and ‘Abba, Father,’ signals a living, personal, and active relationship of profound love and togetherness, a rich and blessed communion in which all things are shared.”

We tend to overlook the reality the Father submits to the Son in the same way the Son submits to his Abba. God, who is Judge over all, defers all judgment to his Son. Our heavenly Father, who created all things, created them through the Word in the Spirit. There is no hierarchy in the Trinity, but there is a Father-Son relationship in which there is mutual respect and submission. Jesus illustrated for us and lived out in our humanity the obedience each of us was created for—an obedience held in the midst of a loving, warm fellowship with Father, Son and Spirit as our Triune God of love.

The thing is, Jesus in his humanity, did not tell the Father “no” even when he was faced with the horrors of the crucifixion. He did ask the Father, but he did so in submission to the love and wisdom of his Abba, allowing him to say “no” to what he in his humanity desired. Jesus was invited by the Father to participate in humanity’s rescue from sin and death, and Jesus was free to say “no” to his Father. But his relationship with his Abba was such, he would not say “no”—his free choice was to join us in our humanity and to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, even though it cost him suffering and death.

One of the most difficult things for a loving parent to do is to watch their child suffer. Abba did not turn from his Son when he went through this suffering, but was “in Christ” when he suffered (2 Cor. 5:19). This event of Holy Week from beginning to end was a shared experience with the Father and his Son in the Spirit. There was no separation at all.

So, God’s “no” is never something which disassociates him from us. When we must live in the midst of whatever “no” we may think God has given us, God is present, going through it with us. When evil seems to be holding sway, understand the God who makes things right will indeed do so when the time is right. He sees what we cannot see, and understands the full ramifications of what is going on, and knows the end from the beginning. There is nothing too hard for him to set right. In Christ, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in his gift of the Spirit, we have this assurance.

It boils down to this: Will we trust him? Will we allow God the freedom to do as he wills in our lives, believing he will make all things right in the end, and has our best interests at heart? Will we respect God’s freedom to do what he will in our situation, trusting he is a good God, a loving and faithful God, who will never leave us or forsake us?

Abba, thank you for your patient and faithful love. Grant us in Jesus and by your Spirit, the will and power to believe you are who you really are—good, loving, and gracious. Hold us in the midst of our suffering, pain, and struggles, and enable us to experience a deepening in our relationship with you. Let us know you are near, through Jesus our Lord, and in your Spirit. Amen.

“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails; …” 1 Corinthians 13:4–8 NASB

For Love’s Sake—Abandoned Blessings

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By Linda Rex

I think the story of St. Patrick is a fascinating one. I never knew until a few years ago I could read his writings and learn quite a bit about this man in the process (for example, go to: https://archive.org/details/writingsofsaintp00patr). In his writings, we see a man just like you and me, who struggled in his relationship with God, in his own personal life, and in coming to know what it meant to follow Christ and to live this out in a pagan culture in which his life and well-being were always at risk.

In my life, years ago, the March 17th holiday celebrating his life was lumped, along with many others, into the category of pagan holidays. I have since made the effort to learn the story behind the observation of this day, and most specifically, the story of St. Patrick’s life and service to God in spreading the Trinitarian gospel of love. I’ve come to see there is something to be said for pausing in the midst of our life to reflect on the beauty of the Trinity, and to once again embrace our calling to lay it all down so others may know God as he really is.

What struck me about St. Patrick’s life was not just the suffering he went through as a slave among the Celtic people who stole him from his home. Rather, what really hit home was the choice he made later in life when he was free and at home with his family, to leave it all behind and go back to the Celtic people who had so disrupted his life, so they could hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This resembles so much what the apostle Paul wrote when describing the ministry of God to us in his Son:

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5–8 NASB)

When we think about the Word of God, who was God and who was With God, who lived eternally in this inner relation of interpenetrating love and mutual submission, we must realize at some point, God had all he needed—he was at perfect peace, in perfect joy, in such glory and splendor there was no reason for the Word of God to come to this far country, to enter our darkness and blackness, except—love. There is no other possible motivation for doing such a thing—but this is what Jesus said he did: “For God so loved the world he gave…” The Father’s love was so great, even the Father was part of the coming of the Word into our broken, fallen cosmos.

I remember as I first read the story of St. Patrick, I was horrified by the experiences he went through in his simple effort to love God and to share the truth of God’s love for us in Jesus. Why would anyone choose to go through such experiences? Apart from the love of God placed in their hearts, they wouldn’t. It is only the love of God himself which could enable us to give so freely in the midst of such danger, hostility and abuse. The freedom to give one’s life completely in this way is a participation in the freedom of God to give himself completely to us, to humanity, even when he knew it meant he would experience suffering and death at our hands.

This has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks—just how much do we as comfortable, well-fed, well-dressed, well-employed people of any nation, creed or language, express this same willingness to set aside the benefits and comforts of our lives for the sake of sharing the love of God in Christ with those who are caught in the darkness of evil, poverty, suffering and grief? Does it break our hearts that others around us do not know who God really is, and that he loves them just as much as he loves us? Do we care enough to do as Jesus did—leave all the blessings for a time so others might experience God’s love?

And yet, this is a struggle for me. What does it mean to truly love another human being? Is it best to just give a hungry person money? Or is it better to help them find a way to feed themselves? Is it best to give someone money for a place to stay for the night? Or is it better to let them experience the consequences of refusing to get sober so they could stay at the mission at night and eventually get a job and own their own home?

Really, what does it mean to leave our comforts so others may find comfort? What does it mean to show and teach our neighbor the love of God in Christ?

We cannot fix other people, but we can sure bring them to Christ and participate with Christ in what he is doing to heal, restore, and renew them. We cannot, and should not, do for others what they should be and could be doing for themselves. Carrying other people’s loads in their place is not healthy for them or for us (Gal. 6:5). And yet, God calls us to be available to help others who are overburdened beyond their ability to bear up (Gal. 6:2), for this reflects God’s heart of love.

Loving others should not arise out of a sense of guilt or shame, but out of a genuine concern and compassion which comes straight from the heart of the Father, through Jesus in the Spirit. It is best to be discerning in our loving of others as ourselves. Loving another person doesn’t automatically mean we give them what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. Loving another person may mean saying no, or telling them the truth in love, or asking them to get the help they need so they can heal, grow or change.

This brings to mind the apostle Paul’s prayer: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9–11 NASB) Prayer and listening to God’s Word to us via the Holy Spirit and the written Word are important parts of knowing what we need to do to love others as ourselves.

We need the grace of God, God’s wisdom, insight and discernment to know how best to share God’s love with others. God gave St. Patrick a call to go to Ireland and he did—but then God also gave him the grace to do the ministry he called him to. We walk by faith, trusting God to guide our footsteps, to give us wisdom in how we love others and tell them the truth about who God is and who they are in Christ. As we keep in tune with the Spirit, God will guide us and teach us how to love each unique person he puts in our path.

Abba, may we each be filled with your heart of love toward those who are caught in darkness, suffering and difficulty. May we be willing to leave our blessings behind as you ask us to and be willing to struggle and suffer and lay down our lives, so others may share in the Triune life and love with us, through Jesus our Lord and by your precious Spirit. Amen.

“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” Galatians 6:7–10 NASB

The Path of Peace

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christmas_lights_clipby Linda Rex

When I was growing up, I learned at an early age that God had rules for everything. He decided what I could eat and what I could not eat, when I could eat certain foods and when I couldn’t. He decided what I should wear and what I shouldn’t wear, and when certain things should be worn and when they shouldn’t. In fact, it seemed as though God was making sure I did everything exactly right so he could bless me and I could be happy, or punish me if I went astray.

I suppose, looking back, there was something helpful about having some order to my existence. But I realized early on I had an inner resistance to this constant dictation as to what I had to do or not do. There was a rebellion deep within me to being controlled in this manner. And of course, this was seen as being sinful and evil. I did a lot of repenting and I worked really hard at “being good.”

The irony in all of this was I wasn’t made any better or any worse by all this effort. If anything, I was so busy putting on my appearance of having my life in order, I was missing out on real life—real relationship with God and with others. It was only in those relationships where I dropped the façade—with my high school buddies, for example—and where I was genuine and transparent I actually experienced true communion with others. The rest was just pretense.

When God finally got through to me with the reality of his grace and Who he actually was for me, with me and in me, I realized I was one of those people Jesus quite adamantly criticized when he was here on earth. I was a Pharisee—a white-washed tomb—a viper in the woodpile.

To come to the realization that you have all the glitz but none of the reality is a painful, difficult process. It takes experiencing the loss of all the things you cherish and coming to the end of all the things you count on to carry you through and to make you “good enough.” It means discarding all your previous notions about Who God is and who you are as his creature. And this is a tough road to travel, because our humanity and the culture we live in encourage us to stay where we are—in the façade.

One of the things I had to learn about God was he is truly free—free to be Who he is, apart from my expectations of him or preconceived notions about him. He is free to do whatever he wants in this world—which is often the exact opposite of how I was taught and believed he would act in certain situations. God is free to be Who he is, not Who I think he is. The Lord of the universe is truly that—Lord—and I am not (shockingly enough!).

But that freedom God has is always tempered by his boundless, deep love, which surpasses our comprehension. The God I grew up with was punitive and angry. And it was not helpful my personal experience of a father reinforced this belief in many ways. But when God revealed himself to me in Christ by the Spirit, I came to see this wasn’t Who God really was. The God of grace and love has always loved me and you and meant for us to be included in his divine life. This is amazing!

The other amazing thing is God gives each of us freedom—freedom to choose, to embrace or reject him, to live in harmony and unity with him and others, or to live in opposition to everything which is good and honorable and to experience the consequences of living in that way. It is hard to image God doing that, but he did and he does. Freedom to live in loving communion with him and each other, or not—it’s as simple as that.

One of the topics which kept coming up last night at a social gathering I attended was the way each of us has a unique history or genesis, but we are all intertwined and interrelated in some way. Indeed, it seems a person cannot assume someone they do not like is not at all connected with them because we have, as the centuries have passed, intermingled our DNA with one another. We are all bound together in a common humanity.

The joys of fellowship and community are a consistent thread throughout human existence. And this is what we seem to cherish most about our family and community celebrations such as Christmas. At the core of our being, we are drawn to one another in ways we don’t even realize—we are created for community and so we are drawn to it as a part of our very being.

This type of loving community, this interweaving of lives with one another in harmony and grace and peace, cannot be built by making rules and enforcing them. This is a work of the Spirit which takes place in the heart. God does not control us or force us into relationship with him and others, but invites us, draws us close, and compels us by his deep, perfect, and gracious love.

I pray you will each experience the blessing of true spiritual community this Christmas in many ways in your lives. I pray your families will experience healing and comfort and encouragement in the midst of all which pulls us apart and divides us. And I pray you will have a blessed and wonderful Advent season, through Jesus, our Lord, and by his Spirit. Amen.

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1–3 NASB

Leading with Love

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Tree covered in ice silhouetted against the sky.
Tree covered in ice silhouetted against the sky.

by Linda Rex

One of the difficulties of life as a single parent is the need to do things for your children which are normally done by both parents. It’s really difficult to play the role of father and mother for a child. There are some things only a mother does well, and some things only a father is really good at. We do the best we can as single parents, but there are some things we just can’t do.

It was easy for me to see early on as a single mom, I could never provide for my son or daughter the feeling which comes when a dad recognizes, values and affirms his children. I could recognize the hunger for this affirmation and attachment, but I still could not fill those needs.

A father has the capacity to destroy his children’s self-worth and crush their belief in themselves and in their ability to succeed simply with a glare or condemning word or by indifferent neglect. But he also has the ability to teach a child to take on challenges and to believe he or she can do the impossible. He can teach them what it means to be loved and valued as a human being. It’s all in how a parent leads.

I was raised in a family which valued authority because of what they believed about who God was. In the early years, dad was in charge and nothing happened without his approval and direction. We feared him and did our best to be good kids so as not to upset him.

As an older adult, I realize now my dad repented of this way of leading the family, and began to mellow over the years and eventually learned and used the power of love and understanding to bring about change in his children in place of authoritarian control. As a teen, I experienced his grace and understanding in many ways. He understood in his later years that leading in love is much more effective than leading by control and coercion.

Control and coercion are external motivators. Motivators like shame, guilt, fear and anger are also external motivators. Dictators, controlling and dominating people, and terrorists like to use motivators such as these to force people to agree to their expectations and terms in an effort to create a society in which everyone does the same thing. These external motivators may create a form of unity, but it is a unity that is merely in form, not necessarily in content. In other words—you may have a person’s compliance, but you don’t necessarily have their wholehearted obedience.

The most powerful thing a parent, and especially a dad, can do, is to love, truly love, their children. This is the kind of love which sets healthy boundaries for a child and enforces them, not punitively, but with grace. This is the kind of love which values each child as a unique person, and so finds their bent and helps grow them to be that person God created them to be.

When a parent has a strong, healthy relationship with a child in which they really see that child for who he or she is, and value their child as a gift from God, and are deeply involved in their child’s life, this creates a bond of love between the child and the parent. This bond can be highly motivating for the child, causing them to make healthy choices when they are being influenced to make unhealthy ones.

Granted, life happens, and every person is different. Some children just go the wrong way, no matter how well loved they are. But this does not negate the reality, that when our family participates in and reflects the divine perichoresis, and is filled with love and grace, there is a strong bond of love which binds everyone together in love. There is a tolerance and respect which would not otherwise be there. Children find themselves motivated, for the most part, to do the right thing from a place inside. Love is an internal motivator which supersedes any other external motivator in its ability to create genuine unity.

I believe this is why the apostle Paul stressed the need for a husband to love his wife, and for parents to love their children. Paul’s culture taught men to rule their wives and to insist that women and children submit to their leadership. Authoritarian rulership and coercion in a family may create external obedience temporarily, but they often crush the hearts of children, foment rebellion in teens, and can eventually destroy people. I have seen and experienced the tragedy that results in such leadership. The broken hearts and minds it creates are a testimony to its ineffectiveness and destructiveness in the long run.

Love, however, creates a familial bond of unity, which motivates those involved to treat one another with respect and concern. Discipline—and here I mean training, not punishment—given in love and tempered with grace, enables children to learn to live within healthy boundaries, while giving them room to grow. In this type of environment there is freedom—freedom to be the people God created us to be, and freedom to treat each other with love and respect. Freedom goes both ways because it is bound up within God’s love.

I was speaking with Doug Johannsen yesterday, and he reminded me that a father, and a husband, is meant by God to be the source (read “head” in most translations) of this love within a family. He is to be the one who pours this love so abundantly over his wife and children they cannot help but love him back and love one another. He is to be the source of this love which binds the family together in unity. Why is this true?

Because this is how our heavenly Father so loves his Son in the Spirit. He loved him so much he gave him all of this which he made. And the Son, and the Father, so loved us, they created us and gave us everlasting life through Jesus in the Spirit, so we can live in the midst of this superabundant love both now and forever.

It is this love, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which is to be the basis on which our families are built. This love which he receives from the Holy Spirit enables a father and husband to love his wife and family with the same love which caused Jesus to lay down his life for humanity. And this love creates an environment in the home in which a family can live together in real unity.

This is the same love which we as single parents must draw upon to enable us to love our children and care for them when we are unable to fill the role of the missing parent. This love of God shed abroad in our hearts is the source of unity, love and grace in our family. And we can trust God to do in and through us what we cannot do on our own to care for, love and minister grace to our loved ones.

Loving Father, thank you for the great love you shower upon your Son in the Spirit, and that we participate in this, your superabundant love, through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the gift of your Spirit. Grant us the grace to live in loving communion with one another in our families, churches, and communities, in the same way in which you live in loving fellowship with your Son, and with us through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Eph 4:1–6 NASB

“Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity (lit. the uniting bond of perfection).” Col 3:14 NASB

But That Was Then

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cross

By Linda Rex

Lent: Awhile back it seemed that everywhere I went, someone was talking about the upcoming lottery. There was quite a bit of money at stake and a lot of people were hoping they might be the lucky one to win it all.

Some of the people who had aspirations of winning the jackpot had some great ideas of how they would spend the millions which would come their way. They would take care of family needs and give some of their new funds away to charity. They might put their children through college and they would probably buy a new car or two.

All of these are good things to do. The change in their financial position would no doubt alter their lifestyle in some way. But altering their circumstances and changing the financial condition of their lives would alter all of their relationships, and it would make demands of them which would require strong character and wisdom. Sadly, not everyone is able to handle this type of dramatic change.

This is because, even with the positive changes that come with being financially solvent and wealthy, there are some things that would not change. They would still be the same people they were before they won the lottery. Their character and nature would not change for the better just because they were well off. Indeed, they may even change for the worse. We hear too often of those whose family and personal life disintegrated after winning the lottery.

Believe me, I’m not criticizing or making fun of those who play the lottery. I’m merely using it to illustrate a point.

I’ve been preaching about temptation during this Lenten season. The reading for last Sunday was 1 Cor. 10:1-13. This passage talks about all the ways Israelites fell prey to temptation while they traveled in the wilderness under the guidance and provision of the Lord.

They had been rescued from slavery, and walked through the Red Sea while the Egyptians who were chasing them drowned. They were brought into relationship with the Lord of the universe who made a covenant with them to be their God while they would be his people. It seemed that Israel had won the jackpot. They had everything they could possibly want at their disposal.

With one caveat: Now they no longer called the shots. From now on they were not slaves of another nation, but neither were they their own masters. Instead, they were the children of Israel, sons of the Most High God. And being children of God meant that they were to live in accordance with the truth of who they were. They were made in the image of God to reflect him, both in their love for one another, and in their love for and devotion to God. God had redeemed them and adopted them as his children. And God wanted them to live like it.

And this was what they wrestled with throughout their history. Many of them wanted to choose to live their own way, as humanity has done since the dawn of creation. And even when they did try to keep the law, they did it in such a way that they developed their own list of rules and methods of interpreting the law. These Jesus eventually criticized because they actually kept people from obeying God’s will in the way God intended.

Even though Israel’s circumstances changed dramatically when they were rescued from Egypt, they themselves did not change. It seems that the external differences in their lives did not alter their character. They were more comfortable with who they thought they were—defined by the onions, and leeks and pleasures of their old life in Egypt. Changes in their circumstances and lifestyles did not suddenly create an understanding of who God was and who they were in relationship to him. And it didn’t immediately instill a faith in God or a devotion to him.

This was something that God worked to grow in them during their travels in the wilderness. He took care of their need for food by providing bread from heaven. He took care of their thirst by giving them water from a rock. He guided them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He worked constantly to teach them what it meant to live in relationship with one another and their heavenly Father. He strove constantly to show his faithful love and compassion even when they rejected him and disobeyed him.

Ultimately, it was in the gift of his Son Jesus that Israel was given what they had needed all along—a new heart and mind. The Word of God took on our humanity and lived the life we all fail to live, died the death we deserve to die, and then rose from the grave. After ascending to the Father, Jesus sent the Spirit to dwell in human hearts—offering us the transition from our old ways of living and being into that of the Triune life.

First Jesus was human in the same way you and I are. He knew what it was like to take a deep breath of springtime air, and he knew the smell of smoke from a campfire. He knew what it was like to be cold, and what it was like to be so hot he could hardly stand it. He was as fully flesh as you and I are.

But then he died and was resurrected. His resurrected body didn’t cease to be human—it just was glorified. He now holds in himself the glorified humanity of each of us. He is what we were meant to become as glorified human beings. The apostle Paul wrote that that just as Jesus is no longer what he used to be, so we are made new as well. In Christ we are new creatures.

This means, like Israel, we are in a totally different situation than we expected. We have all of the beauties and wonders of heaven before us because the God of the universe has called you and me and everyone else his very own. He has adopted us into his family—we are children of God. The old ways of being and living are gone—God calls the shots now.

This means we are not our own masters. We are not captains of our own fate. God has declared our destiny in Christ. But we are fully free to choose to love God and follow Christ, or to reject or ignore him. Our decision does not alter the reality of God’s decision to love us and include us in his family. But it does affect how we experience that reality both now and in the world to come.

God has brought us through Jesus’ baptism just as he brought Israel through the Red Sea. He has delivered us from our old ways of living and being, and freed us from those things that held us captive, just as he freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. God brought us into a covenant love relationship with himself just as he did with Israel, and he nourishes us with bread from heaven in Jesus Christ and water from the Rock in the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been given all we need to become all that God has declared we are.

As we respond to this gift of Jesus Christ and open our hearts and minds to the work of the Spirit, we will find ourselves changing. This will not be an external change, but rather a change of heart and mind. Our circumstances may not change—they may even grow more difficult—but we will be transformed. God will take us on wilderness journeys and will grow us up in Christ. Over time, we will find ourselves in agreement with God in ways we never thought possible before. When God goes to work, we change.

And the change God brings about in our being enables us to begin to live in accordance with the truth of who we are as children of God, made in his image and redeemed by Jesus Christ through the Spirit. We begin to live now as residents of the kingdom of heaven—loving God and one another in the same way that the Father, Son and Spirit have lived for all eternity. This is what we were created for—and God is working in us by the Spirit to form Christ in us so we can fully share in his Triune life and love forever. And that, to me, makes each of us the real lottery winners, no matter who we are.

Thank you, Father, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit by whom you are working to transform us and grow us up into your image. Grant us the grace to respond fully and obediently to the Spirit’s work so that we may grow up into Christ as you wish. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:16–17 NASB