By Linda Rex
November 10, 2019, Proper 27—As a pastor of a small church in North America, I have read, heard, and seen many books and conferences on how to grow my church. I have experienced a wide variety of emotions about the state of my congregations and the state of Christian churches as a whole. And so often, I have come away caught between the demand for greater performance and more investment of time and money, and our utter dependence upon a mighty move of the Holy Spirit to transform our society and culture for the better.
Last night some of the members gathered at the church to provide hot chocolate, cookies, and candy for the trick-or-treaters who were walking through the neighborhood. We played some board games, and chatted with the few who came in out of the cold to join us. I was grateful to each person who stopped by, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed more did not come to enjoy a moment with us.
It is easy to feel discouraged when we are trying so hard to reach out to our community members and so often, we seem to have very little response. I was wrestling with this frustration last week when it occurred to me that being aware that things are not changing as I want them to is one thing, but being critical and condemning is another. There has been ample evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work, and I must not imply or infer that he’s not, or that he isn’t doing a good enough job to suit me.
We’ve been able to touch the lives of several people. We’ve had a few baptisms. We’ve had new people join us here and there over the years. Even though our doors aren’t flooded with an overwhelming attendance of new folks, we do have a few here and there who have joined us on the journey. And that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
I am reminded of the story of Haggai, how the remnant of the people of Israel and Judah had returned to their homeland, but had lost heart in rebuilding the temple. Enough negative resistance and personal distractions occurred that they quit doing what before had been so important to them. They lost sight of a very important truth—the abiding presence of God.
The prophetic word of Haggai to Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the people was for them to “take courage.” They needed the courage to move forward against all obstacles, trusting that God would move away whatever stood in their way and that nothing would prevent them from finishing the task he had given them to do.
The reason they could have this kind of courage was that God was with them. Haggai reassured them that the Spirit of God was abiding in their midst and that they were not to be afraid. We today as the living temple of God’s Spirit individually and collectively need to be courageous and brave about building up God’s spiritual building, and have the same kind of confidence that God is in us, with us, and for us.
He is present and has promised that he would be with us to the end. In Matthew 28:19-20, when commissioning the disciples, Jesus sent them out to make disciples with the understanding that he was with them and would be with them until the end. And that all power and authority in heaven and earth were his, therefore all these resources were theirs to draw upon. There was every reason for them to move courageously out to preach the gospel!
But Jesus also told his disciples to wait on the Holy Spirit—to remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit empowered them for this ministry. There is a two-fold path we take as stewards of the gospel (and we are all stewards of the gospel as God’s children). As we go through our lives, we share with others the miracle of God’s grace and love expressed to us in Jesus. But we also live, work, and share with others the good news of God’s grace and love in full dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s guidance, power, and provision.
I know from personal experience that it is easy to approach the circumstances of my life in such a way that I don’t see my daily encounters with people as an opportunity to share the good news. However, looking at the early church, I find that sharing the good news was an integral part of their individual existence.
In fact, the very reason the early church exploded in numbers was that when persecution happened and people left their homes for new lands, they talked about Jesus wherever they went. They were on fire with the transformation power and love of God in Christ. And this was both the everyday way of being of people who had been touched by the gospel of Jesus Christ and a powerful move of the Holy Spirit.
Coming out of a church paradigm where the denomination headquarters did all the work, where special evangelists were the ones who preached the gospel, I find one of hardest things for me to do is to make everyday encounters with people a venue for the gospel without being preachy or annoying. I want everyday conversations to be opportunities to build meaningful relationship, but find instead that constant inner voice which tells me to put up walls and to self-protect.
Sadly, I do not find within myself as much as I would like that total self-giving which identified so many in the early church who were willing to die for the sake of the gospel. To lay down my life as they did would be considered foolish by many Christians today—unless I was a missionary in a foreign land or in an inner-city ministry. It seems that for many of us as everyday Christians, laying our lives down for the sake of Christ is not what we do—that’s left for certain people to do—pastors, evangelists, preachers, televangelists, for example. But the everyday Christian?
But Jesus didn’t come just for the sake of a few people. He took on our humanity so that every, all, each human being would share in the life and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit—there is a place at the table for each person. If we are believers, then we know this and believe this. So implicit in that knowing is a call on each of us to share that good news with the person in front of us in some way.
So, we pray for open doors, for ways to share this good news. We ask for the words to say and the actions to take. We may only be allowed to help or serve this person in front of us in this moment in some small way. We may not even be able to say anything about Jesus immediately. But we begin in whatever way God puts before us, and we move on from there.
God wants us to be brave and courageous, remembering he is in us, with us, and for us. We can and should share the words of life which have been so life-transforming for us. At the same time, we are to live and share these words in total dependence upon the Spirit’s presence and power, trusting that God will finish what he has begun. May God move in a mighty way, in and through each of us, even today as we yield to and depend upon his Spirit and trust in Jesus.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your love and life through Jesus in the Spirit. Show us the open doors you would have us walk through. Fill our mouths with the words to say in each moment we are given. Fill our hearts with courage and faith, a boldness to share the words of life which have so helped and transformed us. We trust you to finish what you begin, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people saying, ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? But now take courage, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD, ‘take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the LORD of hosts. ‘As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” Haggai 2:2-5 NASB
By Linda Rex
November 3, 2019, Proper 26—Imagine being hired for a job and being told that your best efforts were going to be futile and no matter how hard you tried, you would not succeed. Would you still take the job and be willing to go all the way with it, no matter what might possibly happen in the future?
Isaiah’s prophetic book records his encounter with the Triune God, where he was overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of the Lord’s divine majesty. When the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?” Isaiah volunteered, saying, “Here am I. Send me!” It is then that he heard how the people would respond to his message—they would be deaf and blind, resisting the good news Isaiah sought to share with them (Is. 6).
Throughout the years of his ministry, Isaiah’s prophetic message spoke on the one hand to the sinfulness of the nation and called them back to their covenant relationship with God. On the other hand, the Lord also shared through Isaiah the hope for a redemptive future through a suffering servant messiah who would deliver his people and change their hearts and minds so they would finally love and serve their God.
This prophet faithfully fulfilled his calling, speaking words that apparently no one wanted to hear. He recorded the Lord’s words, telling his nation and many others what the consequences would be for their choices and the way they were living. Isaiah was never celebrated during his life, but according to tradition was sawn in two—an ignoble death for one dedicated to the service of God.
The key to Isaiah’s devotion to such a seemingly futile enterprise lay in his relationship with God himself. When faced with the holiness of the Triune God, he saw himself as a man of unclean lips living among an unclean people. But God offered him grace, taking away his iniquity and cleansing him from his sin. Isaiah’s faithfulness to such a seemingly fruitless task wasn’t for his own glory, but in gratitude to God for his gracious redemption.
Thankfully, Isaiah’s efforts weren’t totally in vain. Whatever he did write, whether or not others contributed to it, was preserved for us to read today. If we were to look in the new testament, we would find Jesus himself quoting the words of Isaiah. The gospel writers were happy to show how Isaiah’s prophetic words were fulfilled in Christ. Even Luke, when recording the book of Acts, tells about Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian who was reading the book of Isaiah and wanting help to understand the words he was reading. This led to the man’s baptism.
Sharing the word of God is not always a comfortable experience. What we forget, or at least I do, is that people don’t necessarily want to hear the truth, especially if it will make them uncomfortable or help them see that they are wrong. An innocent statement, couched in the context of one’s relationship with God, may cause an extreme reaction in someone who is resistant to the Spirit’s work in their hearts and minds. We may blame ourselves for not saying things better, but in reality, it may have nothing to do with us and everything to do with that person’s refusal to respond to the Spirit’s work in their heart and mind.
The closer Christ comes to us, the more we see our need for redemption. But for some of us, this may mean the faster we run the other direction or the harder we fight to resist the pull of grace. We cannot coerce anyone with the gospel—that is not God’s way at all. The gospel is an invitation which can be rejected, ignored, or torn up and thrown in the wastebasket.
So, sharing God’s love and his gospel good news must always be done in the context of prayer. We need the presence and power of the Triune God in the midst of our sharing of God’s grace and love. He is the One who changes hearts and minds. He is the one who takes our scarlet sins and makes them white as snow.
We also need to remember how Jesus approached people. The way we talk with them and about them needs to reflect the nature and goodness of our gracious God. In the story of Zaccheus, we find Jesus heading through town, and this man of short stature climbing a tree in an effort to see him when he would pass by. Jesus goes to him and tells him that he must stay at Zaccheus’ house.
In any case, this started the townspeople talking, for Zaccheus was a notorious “sinner”, a tax collector. Jesus did not see the man in this way. He saw him as a redeemed “son of Abraham” and someone who was lost who needed to be found. The approach of Jesus was redemptive and welcoming, speaking to and of Zaccheus as if he was already forgiven, accepted, and found. His gracious acceptance was lost on the townspeople who had their minds set on the sinfulness of the tax collector, but for Zaccheus, they were life. He immediately sought to express his gratitude by making amends.
Our sharing of the good news is a natural outworking of the Spirit’s redemptive work in our hearts and minds, and our lives. We bear witness to what Jesus has done to transform, heal and renew. We may experience resistance—let it be only because we are reflections of the glory, grace and love of God. Let it not be because we have sought to coerce or manipulate or use others. Let it not be because we have maligned the word of God due to our hypocrisy or unloving actions or words.
And let us pray—for open hearts, open doors, open paths for the gospel to spread. Pray for individual people we have met or gotten to know. Pray that they will encounter the Triune God, the living Lord Jesus, and be baptized in the Holy Spirit’s fire of love and grace. And courageously, let us speak the words of life, no matter the result. Someday, maybe in eternal glory, we may be surprised at what God has done with our simple efforts to share his words of life.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, for including us in your mission in this world, to tell everyone of the gracious love of our heavenly Father. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for working to bring each of us to see and know the Father and Son more intimately, and to transform our hearts by faith. Do bring these, our brothers and sisters, to faith in Christ so we can share together in fellowship and unity both now and forever. Amen.
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19:10 NASB
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ | Says the Lord, | ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, | They will be as white as snow; | Though they are red like crimson, | They will be like wool.’” Isaiah 1:18 NASB
“How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, | Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, | And in whose spirit there is no deceit! When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away | Through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; | My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to You, | And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; | And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; | Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; | You preserve me from trouble; | You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.” Psalm 32:1–7 NASB
By Linda Rex
October 13, 2019, Proper 23—On a rare occasion I wonder what the world would be like if every young lady had her very own fairy godmother. With the whisk of a wand would come a pumpkin carriage, a beautiful gown, and the promise of love and living happily ever after as princess in the kingdom of a charming prince. So often we expect God to be like a fairy godmother, waving his wand over our circumstances, making everything wonderful and perfect, just as we imagine it should be.
As a child I was not allowed to read or watch fairy tales because they might fill my head with dreams and fantasies and that was considered unhealthy. But I have always been drawn to them because, as I found out as an adult, at the root of so many of them is the story of God’s love for humanity.
Modern versions of these fairy tales often lose the simplicity of this story, of how a beautiful princess is held captive in some way by an evil person, and a handsome prince from a far away land comes and rescues her, carrying her home to his kingdom. More important than the magic wand or fairy godmother is the prince, who faces an impossible task of defeating a horrible, evil foe. This prince may even cross the line of death, only to be rescued by the kiss of true love. This is the wonderful story of the gospel—of what Jesus did for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Stories tell us a lot about ourselves, about how we deal with evil, sin, and death. They can act as mirrors, showing us what is going on in our hearts, or they can inspire us to transcend whatever sorrows or difficulties we may be facing at the moment. Sometimes we immerse ourselves in stories in an effort to escape the hardships of life. But stories are the language of humanity—from the beginning of time we have always used stories to teach, inspire, remember, and to create community.
It is instructive that the Spirit inspired the preservation of millennia of human stories in the Bible—of families, communities, nations, and even of our Savior. These stories remind us of our common humanity. When we read a story about what happened to someone a long time ago, at times we see ourselves in the midst of that story. We find ourselves faced with the same issues, the same family dynamics, the same pulls toward sin and selfishness as the people in these stories.
When we look at the lineage of Jesus, we find the names of people who are in these stories—people who made mistakes, whose families were a mess, and whose relationship with God was, from all appearances, questionable. These were real people, like you and me, who were sinners—whose only hope for eternal salvation lay in the grace and mercy of God himself.
Think about the story of Naaman, an Aramean commander of the army. He had leprosy from which he could not be cured—how he got it and how bad it was, we don’t know. What we do know is that an Israelite captive, a young girl who was his wife’s slave, lamented the fact that Naaman didn’t know Elisha, because the prophet could cure him.
Naaman went to his king with this information, and he sent him to the king of Israel with a letter and some gifts, and a request for healing. While the king of Israel was stressing out about all this, thinking he was facing war, Elisha sent a message to the king, telling him to send Naaman his direction and that he would take care of him. So, the king of Israel sent Naaman to Elisha’s house.
Naaman was looking for the guy with the magic wand, who would say some fancy incantations and he would be healed. But God had other things in mind—he wanted Naaman to be a part of the process of his healing. Elisha sent a message to Naaman—which was insulting enough in itself—and told him to dip seven times in the Jordan River and he would be clean. Thinking he had been insulted and humiliated by Elisha. the infuriated Naaman started to return home.
If Naaman had continued to focus on his own method of healing, on his expectations of God, and on his own way of doing things, he would have missed out on what God wanted to do for him. There is a great measure of humility and grace which goes with healing—it’s on God’s terms and in his timing and way. Our times are in his hands, and he writes our days in his book before any of them come to be. God isn’t a fairy godmother—he is a loving Lord who knows the end from the beginning and holds all things in his hands.
God allowed Naaman the freedom to accept or reject his intervention in his life and circumstances. The commander might have been able to order around the men under his authority, but he could not order around the Lord of the universe. A critical lesson which comes with healing of any kind is a deep understanding, acceptance of. and submission to the reality of our powerlessness. We are not the Lord—Jesus Christ is.
The healing God offers us so often supersedes the simple renewal of human flesh. We value this life so much that we forget that God sees all things through the lens of eternity and because of the finished work of Christ, death is not an obstruction or limit. It is merely a door to our real existence—of our glorified humanity dwelling in the presence of God forever. Death is not to be feared—it is to be seen as a defeated foe, conquered by our ever-living Lord.
Soon I will be attending the funeral of a woman who played a significant role in my life for many years. My mother-in-law Sue was a woman of faith who followed Jesus to the best of her ability and understanding. She took seriously the admonition to teach the young women how to care for their homes and families, and sought to share in her children’s and grandchildren’s lives and interests as much as she could. She loved the land and the animals on her farm—I can see her now in my mind, the barn cats and chickens following her as she carried the sloshing milk bucket back to the house.
The stories of our lives, of our loved ones as they join us on this journey, are important to remember and to share. We need to tell these stories so that others can see how God intervened and impacted our lives, and how Jesus rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of light. When God asks us to take a step toward our healing, we need to listen and to participate with him in our renewal, even if it doesn’t make sense, or we don’t understand his purpose in all of it. We never know who may find healing, or how, when we share our stories and allow others to participate in God’s work of healing in our lives.
Dearest Abba, thank you for including us in your story. Thank you, Jesus, for being our Prince of Peace, the One who came and rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and brought us into your kingdom of light. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for bringing Jesus’ resurrection life into reality in us and in our lives. Grant us the grace to admit our powerlessness and to surrender to your will and purposes in our lives. Give us the courage, boldness, and inspiration to tell your story and ours, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“He looked at them and said, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed of their leprosy. …And Jesus said to the man, ‘Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.’” Luke 17:14, 19 NLT
“But Elisha sent a messenger out to him with this message: ‘Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of your leprosy.’” 2 Kings 5:10 NLT
By Linda Rex
It’s been quite a few years since I have had babies and toddlers traveling everywhere with me. Now they are full grown, and it’s getting harder to imagine carrying them on my hip and holding their little hand as we walk down the sidewalk. I had such joy watching them explore their world, seeing new things and learning new tasks. It was and is a privilege to be their mom.
In the early days, I recall that every trip to the store and to church involved stuffing a diaper bag full of necessities “just in case”: diapers, wipes, extra clothes, toys, a bottle—the list went on. I didn’t want to be caught without something which might be needed. But no matter how prepared I was, it seemed like there was almost always something I forgot to bring.
And going places was not simple. When the children were really little, it seemed like everything took so much longer and required so much more effort. Most of the time it took at least half an hour to an hour just to get the kids ready to go out the door. And then we would only succeed in leaving on time if we were lucky enough to avoid a last-minute disaster such as a dirty diaper.
But going to all that effort was worth it. The point of packing all the necessities was so that we could all be together as a family, doing something important together. We were sharing life together and that meant going through whatever was necessary so that we could be together doing the things which mattered.
At one point while Jesus was instructing his disciples, he sent them out in pairs to share in his work of ministry. Now, I can imagine Peter and James sitting there listening to Jesus say that he was sending them out on this journey. In his head, James began to form a list of what would be necessary—a couple of fishing rods, the stuff he needed for fixing the fishing nets—just in case he would need to catch a few fish when they were hungry. Peter began reviewing which of his favorite tunics he would have his wife mend so he could have an extra one on the road.
But right away Jesus tells them they were to “take nothing for their journey.” They were not to carry any extra baggage, “no bread, no bag, no money in their belt.” They were to just take a staff and wear a tunic and a pair of sandals, and they were good to go.
In their mind, no doubt, the disciples were thinking, surely, we could take a few things “just in case”. And that’s what speaks to the reason for Jesus’ instructions. The “just in case” concern is the one in which we as humans feel as though we must do everything necessary to hold things together so nothing will go wrong. So, we need this, that, and the other thing “just in case”.
Previous to Jesus sending out his disciples in this passage, Mark describes how Jesus in his own hometown, because of the unbelief of the people there, was unable to do any miracles except a few healings. They did not believe Jesus was the person he said he was. No, he was the carpenter who fixed their door, and built them a stable, and roofed their house. He was no messiah.
But here, Jesus is calling on his disciples to believe—to literally walk by faith—to move forward into the ministry of the gospel trusting that Jesus is their Messiah and has indeed empowered them to heal the sick and cast out demons. They were not to depend upon their own ability to provide for themselves, but to completely depend upon Abba and allow other people to provide for their needs. No doubt, this would have been difficult for these independent, self-reliant men who in the past had always provided for themselves.
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when God expects ministers of the gospel to pay their own way. But this was a special missionary journey Christ was sending his disciples on, and he did not want them distracted by the cares and concerns of daily life. And they also needed to learn to trust in Abba for their daily needs and to not depend solely upon themselves. There were lessons Jesus was trying to teach his disciples and they were best learned by doing the work of preaching the gospel, healing, and casting out demons without being distracted with the mundane cares of life.
Too, having to depend upon the people they were ministering to was a way in which these men were placed in a position of needing people to help them. This created space for relationship. If they wanted something to eat or drink, they would need to ask for it or receive it from someone if it was offered to them. If they wanted a place to stay, they would need someone to offer it to them. They would need to be humble and receptive to whatever came their way. Their life became fully a life of service, of giving. They would be laying down their self-sufficiency and be fully dependent upon Abba and others.
No doubt Jesus, and Abba, took great joy in watching these men undertake this mission and learn to share the gospel in everyday life with new people in new places. They were spiritual toddlers who were just learning to walk in the ways of Jesus, growing in their faith and in their service to God.
And Jesus had every intention of seeing them through this experience—he gave them the authority to do what was needed in their situation, and he was with them in Spirit as they went about preaching the gospel. And he was thrilled they were moving forward into their calling as his apostles—the ones set aside to bear witness to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
In the same way Abba and Jesus enjoy watching us grow in our spiritual walk and service to God. Each of us is called to share the gospel in word and deed and we are given all we need to take on our journey. We don’t really need anything else “just in case” because, in Christ, we have been given all we need for life and godliness.
We are to walk by faith, not by sight. We are to trust in God, not in our own ability to save ourselves. Our hope isn’t in having everything under our control and fully provided for, but fully in Jesus Christ who stands in our place and on our behalf. We can drop the diaper bag or the suitcase of our human efforts to save ourselves and travel lightly, fully dependent upon God’s grace. Jesus Christ is sufficient for us. We don’t need anything else.
Thank you, Abba, that you provide for our every need and often even the true desires of our hearts. Thank you for empowering us to share your words of life with others and to help them find healing and wholeness in your Son Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to trust in you and your great love and faithfulness, and to lay down our futile efforts to save and provide for ourselves apart from you. Thank you that because of your love and faithfulness, we don’t need to take anything along our journey “just in case” but can trust fully and solely in you. In Jesus’ Name and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.
“And He summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits; and He instructed them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a mere staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belt—but to wear sandals; and He added, ‘Do not put on two tunics.’” Mark 6:7-9 NASB
By Linda Rex
This morning one of the members, Pat, and I were outside painting a sign at the church. The sun was slowly rising and the intensity of its heat was increasing as we worked to finish our project. Several people who live in the neighborhood passed by, either jogging or walking their dogs, and we said hello. Nearly all of them were friendly and responded cordially. It really was a pleasant day to be in the neighborhood.
I have been a pastor with Good News Fellowship for just about five years now, and this neighborhood has changed tremendously within that short period of time. A common sight are houses being torn down and new, multiple dwellings being put in their place. The neighborhood is in the midst of a gentrification process, yet in spite of all this change, neighbors are starting to get to know one another and look out for one another. And they are vocal about their desire to create and live in a safe, friendly community.
It’s good to see and experience the feeling of community growing around us. This neighborhood has only begun to feel that way to me within the last year or two. Perhaps the neighborhood seems different partly because I am actually in the neighborhood involved in some activity on some day other than Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. And I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the people who live on the street the church is located on, to learn their names and a little bit about them through the neighborhood association and community activities.
We have a few church neighbors who come over and participate in our weekly Community Café free meal. But these are not the neighbors I saw last night or this morning as we worked on the sign. I have met a few of these neighbors at community events or on the street, but not within our church doors. A few may attend other churches in the Nashville community, but most are uninterested in, and even opposed to, organized Christian religion. Christianity is being viewed more and more as the cause of disharmony and disunity rather than being seen as the solution to it.
One of the conversations we find ourselves having as a pastoral team is how we have a wide variety of people we minister to and who worship with us—all races and strata of society—but none of them are from this group of young adults who are moving into the neighborhood. These are talented and educated professionals who reflect a post-Christian mindset. They are very community-minded, but want nothing to do with organized religion. And I believe they have every reason to reject it when I take into consideration everything they have heard or seen about Christians and their churches.
What I have found since I moved to the South is a strong Christian culture in the Bible Belt—even more so than what I experienced while living in the farming country of Iowa. This Christian culture has its strong points and also its drawbacks. Nowadays in our ministry to people in our community I find I’m talking with someone who already has a lengthy experience with church and the Bible, rather than with someone who is biblically illiterate or unchurched. This means in the apostle Paul’s language, when I share the gospel with this person or preach the Word of God to him or her, I am building on another person’s foundation rather than building directly upon Christ himself.
Conversations with people who are churched can be challenging. What people may believe about the Bible or God might be drawn from the teachings of various televangelists or popular authors, and need some serious reassessment due to their lack of a healthy spiritual foundation in Christ himself and his written Word. But other times, some people are so sure they are right about what they believe there is no room for the Word of God to go to work to bring about renewal and transformation. The Spirit’s efforts to heal and restore are hampered by the haphazard building which has already been done on the foundation which may or may not be Jesus Christ.
This complicates our efforts to fully proclaim the gospel of Christ, as Paul puts it. We are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to minister the word of God to those who already have been built on Christ, and also to deconstruct and rebuild those who need to be reconstructed on a healthy foundation. We are utterly dependent upon Christ and his work by the Spirit in any effort to preach the gospel of Christ to anyone, whether believer or not.
Indeed, it’s a real challenge to reach out to those who are unchurched or who are adamantly opposed to church or Christianity in any form. There is only one option left open to us sometimes and it is a good one, actually. What is left for us to do is to share God’s love with each and every person we meet in tangible ways—we begin to be good neighbors to each and every person, sharing life with them, offering them truth and grace—and sharing in word and deed what it means to live in the truth of who God is and who we are in him.
Our challenge as a church congregation is to get out of the pews and get into relationships with our church neighbors. This is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable task for some of us, but it is one which God has placed before us. Yet it is not given without his promises and his real, personal Presence in the Holy Spirit to go with us.
The early church prayed for God to confirm his Word through signs and wonders, and to extend the reach of the gospel. And Jesus, by his Spirit and with his people, did those very things. We are called to pray and to participate in Christ’s ministry to the world. We have not only because we ask not, and because we depend upon ourselves and our efforts instead of upon Christ. I would encourage those who feel the longing for Jesus to grow and heal this world and this community to pray, to ask, and to anticipate God’s generous outpouring of response.
God is not put off by a post-Christian culture. None of this is about Christianity anyway. It is all about each and every person growing up in his or her Christlikeness—of sharing the common relationship we have all been given in Christ by the Spirit with the God who made us in his image to reflect his likeness and to share his love. And our role is to participate in the process and to follow wherever Christ leads us. May we respond to his call to each of us by his Holy Spirit. There is much to be done.
Dear God, thank you for loving each and every person whether or not they know you, or love you in return. I am grateful you are not put off by our refusal to believe, but rather you continue to work unceasingly to change our hearts and minds and to bring us into deep relationship with you in Christ by your Spirit. We long for you to bring spiritual renewal and transformation to our neighborhood so each person can experience the reality of true community. Make it so, Lord, by your Spirit. Give us each the boldness and courage, as well as the opportunities, to share your Words of life and your love with our neighbors. And Holy Spirit, please confirm your Word by the signs and wonders which are appropriate in this day and age, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’” Romans 15:17–21 NIV
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
By Linda Rex
Last Saturday I held the Sharing God’s Love women’s retreat at my home. It was a small gathering—altogether there were nine of us who participated. I have limited space in my downstairs, so it was a tight squeeze for everyone to have a place to sit, especially around the dining table at lunchtime. But we did it, and I believe we all had a good time together.
We began our event with an icebreaker where we shared some things we didn’t know about each other. Then we moved into contemplative prayer where we invited the Holy Spirit to show us areas in our hearts and lives where God would like to bring healing and transformation. We wrote these things down as God showed them to us.
I talked briefly about the spiritual discipline of inner-healing prayer and how God uses it to bring healing and renewal in each of our lives. I used as a reference the book The Handbook of Spiritual Disciplines by Calhoun. The ladies then split up into pairs and prayed for one another, specifically keeping the concerns in mind God had showed them earlier. I saw tears and heard laughter. It was a moving experience for those involved.
We paused to have lunch together, and then I began the afternoon session. I read Acts 2:42-47 and showed how what we had done so far that day was like what the early church experienced shortly after Pentecost. We had spent time hearing the Word of God, we had prayed together, and had fellowshipped and shared a meal together. They each had received a small gift. The ladies had also each brought an item to the event to give away, and put it in one of the baskets we would be giving away to some of our Community Café visitors in February.
During the afternoon session we continued in the spirit of the early church and created something to give to others. We began making Valentine’s Day cards using some templates and precut items Pat and I had made earlier in the week. Some wrote messages on the cards, others just pasted scriptures and greetings on the cards. It was all a simple project. We ended up with about 65 cards to give away.
We split these cards up between two people. Teresa would be taking some to the nursing home where her mother was, and Valinta would be giving some away at work. Our goal is to have them return and report to the church the way the early apostles would do after a trip sharing the gospel. So, we all gathered hands and prayed for Teresa and Valinta and God’s blessing on their efforts to share the message of God’s love with all those who received the cards. We followed this with communion and a benediction.
We had hosted one of these two years ago at Mercy Convent here in Nashville. That had been quite a different experience since we had the use of the chapel, the porch and the grounds during that event. But no matter the location, gathering together to share in spiritual community in this way is often healing, and creates a sense of refreshment and renewal.
I believe there is something significant which is lost when we do not slow down long enough to experience renewal with others. I’m afraid we are often so busy being individuals with our own plans and agendas, we don’t have time or even the desire to sit and be silent, or to share important parts of ourselves with others who can pray with us and for us, and be a part of helping us to heal and to be renewed.
The irony about this event, in my experience, was what happened afterwards in my own personal life. As a pastor, often we are the ones hosting these types of sessions, and we are not always the participants. Because this is the case, we don’t often experience the renewal others experience while participating in them. We had an uneven number of ladies on Saturday, so when we split into pairs to pray, I sat out. I prayed silently while they were praying, but did not specifically participate in the inner-healing prayer.
Indeed, God had brought a particular thing to my mind during the contemplative prayer session, but I held onto it, thinking the Lord and I would work it out together later. I would have some downtime later, and we would talk about it then. And God did address it with me, but not as I expected.
The next day I had a busy day at church. I not only played keyboard in the band during worship, but I also preached. That is draining enough, but I also had a meeting following the service which I felt was very important. So by the time I left the church building and headed home, this introvert was pretty drained.
I got into the car and started up the road. I vaguely realized I needed gas for the car, so I started looking for the brand of gas I prefer to use. And I just started driving, and driving, and driving. I finally realized I was just driving absentmindedly, and stopped to fill the tank. I had not realized how overcome with grief I was until that moment when I felt I could just keep driving and not look back.
I wasn’t really very far from home, so I went there, parked the car, and called one of my team members. I explained what had happened and asked her to pray for me. And as she prayed, I cried. God had called me into inner-healing prayer in spite of my neglect of it at the retreat. God knew I was grieving and needed to grieve, but also knew I needed to grieve with someone. God works healing within the context of relationships, whether we like it or not.
It’s tough to let go of our rugged individualism and humble ourselves enough to confess our brokenness and need to someone so they may pray for us and we may be healed. But this is what God encourages us to do (James 5:16). This is extremely difficult to do in a culture where such spiritual, emotional intimacy is mistaken for other types of relationships, but it’s what we were created for. God did not intend for us to live as islands—we were created for deep, close, loving relationships with him and with one another.
If I might share this piece of encouragement—find a safe person who you feel you can trust, and who loves the Lord, and ask them to pray with you and for you. Don’t keep your grief, struggles, and brokenness to yourself. If you don’t have one, begin seeking one out, asking God for direction and wisdom. God never meant for you to carry this all alone. And if I might help, I would be more than happy to pray with and for you—just ask.
Abba, thank you for surrounding us with caring people who are willing to pray for and with us when we are in need. Make us more aware of the love which you have placed in our lives—show us how you share your love with us day by day through all the caring relationships we participate in. If we do not have these, then Lord, I pray—shower us with your love. Without you, and without one another, we are truly lost. Thank you for your faithful love, through Jesus and by your Spirit, we pray. Amen.
“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42–47 NASB