grief

Keeping Vigil in Illness and Death

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By Linda Rex

April 11, 2020, HOLY SATURDAY, HOLY WEEK—Looking at the graphic on the cdc.org website each day, I am moved by the way the numbers have climbed in the past couple days of those infected with COVID-19. The number of fatalities have increased as well, and it pains me to accept the reality this isn’t going to get much better for some time. It is challenging to keep these numbers in perspective, remembering that substantial numbers of people also died during the same time due to other more mundane causes such as cancer, car accidents, drug overdose, suicide, and sadly, abortion.

In many ways, our observation of what is happening with this pandemic is like the picture described by the gospel writers as Jesus hung on the cross, breathed his last agonized breath, died, and was placed in a tomb. Gathered within eyesight of the cross were several of his followers, whose lives were being totally disrupted by the loss of their rabbi and friend. His disciples handled his crucifixion in different ways—some were not even present in his last moments. One had been his betrayer. But there were those who stayed and kept vigil with him.

Think of Mary standing there, who so many years before had uttered the simple words, “Let it be to me as you wish” and her life became a living sacrifice in service of the soon to be birthed Savior. She raised this child to manhood, relinquished him to his heavenly Father’s service, and traveled with him at times, supporting him in his ministry.

She stood there at the cross, watching the unthinkable happen to her son, maybe even in that moment finally recalling the prophetic words of Simeon, “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” Bound to Jesus with cords of love, she was comforted by his final wish, that John would care for her in her final days. This simple concern for her wellbeing while he was dying on the cross demonstrated a deep love and concern for Mary. How could she help but lament the loss of such a son?

The women not only watched Jesus as he breathed his final breath, but then followed Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus to the tomb. There the women sat across from the tomb as the men prepared Jesus’ body for burial. There was an urgent need to get it done before the sabbath began at sundown. When the men were finished, they pushed a stone across the front of the tomb. There Jesus laid, hidden from view, observed from a distance by the brokenhearted women who were his followers.

Lament is a healthy response to suffering and death. Dismay and concern are common feelings which rise out of one’s heart and mind—we lament the loss of all that is good, meaningful, treasured. We grieve the loss of what we cherish, the ending of those moments of connection, the changes in our everyday occurrences which are now forever altered. As we lament, we consider the ramifications of what just occurred or is occurring—our lives will be forever altered because of this moment, this unbearable change.

Some of us never allow ourselves to slow down long enough to even contemplate our losses, much less grieve them. To lament means taking the time to sit by the tomb and observe what is taking place, the reality of death and dying. It means allowing ourselves to feel our feelings and to accept that if or when that person dies, our world will never be the same ever again.

At first glance, death and dying are horrible bedfellows. Our natural response to death is to either fear it, resist it, or deny it. Or, possibly for some people, death can become so common in certain situations that we begin overlook it, becoming desensitized to the pain and suffering which go with it. Either way, we need to face death head on, keeping vigil with God at the tomb as what only he can do is accomplished—we need to rest in the tomb with Jesus, allowing him to be who he is as our Lord and Savior, in his death.

Going back to our story—the women watched the tomb, but could not open it. They were going to need help to get the stone moved so they could tend to Jesus’ body and use the ointments and spices would prepare. On the next day, the sabbath and holy day, the Jewish leaders went to Pilate and asked that the tomb be sealed shut and a guard be set over it. These leaders were so afraid that Jesus’ promise to rise from the grave would happen they had to find a way to prove it did not happen. The tomb was sealed shut and the guards posted.

But the vigil of the guards was much different than the vigil of the women. The women watched in sorrow, taking note of where Jesus was buried, hoping to tend to his body after the sabbath in addition to what Joseph and Nicodemus had already done. In time they went home to put together spices and ointments to bring back later.

Meanwhile, Roman soldiers were put in place by the Jewish leaders. The guards kept watch, protecting the tomb from tampering. They were indifferent to who was in the tomb and what might be going on inside the tomb. All they cared about was watching for anyone outside the tomb violating the seal.

In the same way today, our vigil in the midst of the pandemic can be focused on all of the externals, on all the possible violations of the rules, or on all of the bad outcomes that might occur due to COVID-19 and all the other scary stuff happening in the world right now. Or our focus can be on the One who is in the tomb and the hope which in ours in the midst of all this because he, for a time, laid in the grave just as each of us will one day.

Keeping vigil with Jesus as he hung on the cross and laid in the grave is a sobering reminder that there are parts of our broken humanity which needed to be crucified and to die—we all have places where we deny our personhood as image-bearers of our God. Our focus must be, not on all our failures to love, the tragedies of this world, and the suffering of our humanity, but on the One who lived our life and died our death. He is the one who carried our humanity into the grave and reformed it, as a caterpillar in a cocoon is metamorphosized into a beautiful butterfly.

Jesus had become a curse for us, had become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What was happening in the tomb that Saturday involved each and every human being on earth—death itself was being invaded by Jesus and robbed of its power. No longer need death cause fear, dread and sorrow—we now can have hope. The morning would bring proof that there is nothing in this world that can separate us from God’s love—not even death on a cross. There is life beyond the grave. By faith, death becomes merely a door into an eternity in the presence of our loving God, with whom we will dwell in glory forever.

Thank you, Abba, for rescuing us from the jaws of death. Thank you, Jesus, for penetrating the gates of hell itself for our sake, so we could be once and for all free from the fear of death. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for all the ways you comfort us, heal us, and make real in us the finished work of Christ. Grant us the grace in the midst of illness, suffering, and dying, to trust in your healing power and presence, find comfort and peace in your love, and keep our eyes on Jesus our Lord and Savior. Amen.

“This I recall to my mind, | Therefore I have hope. | The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, | For His compassions never fail. | They are new every morning; | Great is Your faithfulness. | ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’” Lamentations 3:21–24 NASB

See also Matthew 27:57–66, John 19:38–42, and 1 Peter 4:1–8.

In Death, Coming to Life

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By Linda Rex

March 29, 2020, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT—Tuesday, as my son and I made our normal every-other-week trip to the grocery store to update our pantry, we found many of the shelves empty. Things which you and I take for granted were not available and I discovered I would have to buy brands of food I wouldn’t normally buy just so we had what we needed. I also realized after looking in more than one store that there was no hope of taking any toilet tissue home that day.

As we did our best to honor the social distancing cues, I felt an atmosphere in the store of a quiet bustle mixed with anxiety. As people went about looking for items to purchase, it seemed as though there was a common effort to keep things as normal as possible in a setting which was anything but normal. There really wasn’t any conversation, and even the cashier seemed a little distracted.

It’s hard to keep track of all the details regarding the COVID-19 outbreak since they are constantly changing and people express such a wide variety of opinions on what is going on and what our response should be to the crisis. When faced with the possibility of an extreme number of deaths resulting from this virus, it is instructive that for the most part, the average person doesn’t want to die, nor do they necessarily want others to die.

I found myself asking the question this week—do I really, sincerely care whether other people around me live or die? Whether we like it or not, how we act in this crisis tells a lot about us and whether or not our love for others is genuine and real. Who is our neighbor? Truly our neighbor is that person we have never met who is vulnerable and could easily catch the disease and die. She is also that person who just lost their job or business because their place could no longer stay open due to quarantine restrictions.

My neighbor, whoever he or she may be, is a person who like myself, is facing the reality of death, whether actual death, or death to a business, or financial stability, or the comfort of family and friends. Each of us is walking step by step through “the valley of the shadow of death”, not knowing what the next month or two may bring. Our life may never be the same again. We may never be blessed in the same way we were blessed before this all began. Death is an evil which so often brings about traumatic change and leaves us wounded and broken.

Whatever may happen in the next few months, we can be certain of this—death does not have the last word. Our faith in Christ teaches us that death is not an end—it is a beginning. It is the place where Jesus meets us and brings his resurrection life to replace our death. We can look at death as a welcome birth into new life, both now through our spiritual rebirth and one day in a glorified body in the age to come.

In the Christian faith, baptism and communion are expressions of the spiritual reality that we died with Christ and are risen with Christ—he is the determining factor of our existence. He is our life. Our eternal life—the intimate knowing and being known which exists between the Father and the Son in the Spirit in which we participate in Christ—has been solidly established in Jesus Christ and been given to us by the gift of the Spirit. God’s presence in us and with us affirms that we are alive in Christ—death no longer has any hold over us.

In Ezekiel 37:1–14, a companion passage to this week’s lectionary pericope, we read about the prophet’s encounter with God in the middle of a valley filled with dry bones. These bones represented a morally bankrupt and alienated nation who had rejected their covenant relationship with God and who had, like so many of us, found themselves spiritually dead, with no hope at all of any life in or connection with God.

Standing in the middle of death in this way, Ezekiel must have felt overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the situation. But God said to him that he was going to cover the bones with sinews and flesh—and he did. Then God breathed his life into these lifeless pieces of human flesh—a simple reflection on what God did in the beginning when he first gave life to humankind. Without God’s breath in us, without the zōē life, we are but lifeless pieces of flesh, with no ability to know or be known. It is God’s Breath or Spirit breathed into us through our Lord Jesus Christ (who is the resurrection and the life), who gives us the capacity for intimate relationship with our God and one another.

Another companion passage (Romans 8:6–11) tells us that apart from the Spirit at work in us, we cannot please God. As long as we continue to focus on our fleshly human existence, we reap the consequences of that existence—death—and we are unable to live in loving relationship with the God who formed us to love and be loved. The apostle Paul says, “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace”. He goes on to say that apart from the Spirit we will not live in godly ways. In fact, we cannot.

Our natural proclivity is to choose those ways which lead to death. So Jesus came and lived our human life in such a way as to transform our humanity—to reform our human existence into one which resembles the divine life and love. Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the reality of what it means to truly live, as he is intimately connected with the Father and compassionately connected with his human brothers and sisters in the Spirit.

We read how closely Jesus connected himself with us in many stories told by the gospel writers. John tells us of one such story, when Jesus was notified that a very dear friend was seriously ill. After hearing the news, Jesus surprised his disciples by not immediately leaving to go heal him, but remaining where he was. Later, when he prepared to go to Bethany, he was asked about Lazarus, and he told them Lazarus was dead. On face value, it would seem as though Jesus was indifferent to the suffering of these close friends. But we need to look closer at what really was going on.

What is Jesus’ response to death and dying? In this case, Jesus was setting in motion a plan to bring many people, including his disciples, into a deeper understanding of and belief in his person as their Messiah. Mary and Martha both implied their disappointment in Jesus delaying his coming by reminding him he could have healed Lazarus and prevented his death. But Jesus had greater things in mind—he was focused not on death, but on resurrection.

In his conversation with these beloved sisters, Jesus reminded them of who he was—the resurrection and the life. Life was found in him—a life unbounded by the limits of our human existence. Jesus pointed them beyond the moment of loss and grief to another of hope and joy, reminding them that death is not the end. In this case, death was only a temporary problem which was going to be superseded by the resurrection of Lazarus to his former human existence.

Jesus had the opportunity, because of Lazarus’ death, to glorify his Father by raising Lazarus from the dead—thereby demonstrating the reality of his personhood as the One with power over death, the One who gave life to all things. This would set in motion a series of events, due to the fear and hatred of the Jewish leaders, which would culminate in Jesus’ own death on the cross. He knew he must die, so that all humanity might live—and he was willing to start the process by raising Lazarus from the grave.

Who is our neighbor? According to Jesus, every human being was his neighbor—someone he was willing to die for so that they could live. As it has been written, “God didn’t want to be God without us”, so he came and joined us in our humanity, lived our life and died our death, rising again to bring our humanity into the presence of Abba forever. In the sending of the Spirit, we participate in that divine life by faith in Jesus Christ.

In the midst of this time of uncertainty, while facing the reality of illness and death, we can be sure of one thing—we are not alone. As the shepherd king David wrote, we have no reason in the midst of this “valley of the shadow death” to fear evil—for God is with us. Immanuel—our Lord—has traversed this path before us and is walking this path with us. In the Spirit he is present, sharing our sorrow, grieving our losses, carrying us into a new place of healing, renewal, and restoration. It may be dark and difficult for a while, but he promised never to leave us or forsake us—and he will keep that promise. For he is faithful.

Blessed Lord, thank you for walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” before us in your death and resurrection, but also for walking with us through this difficult time of uncertainty, suffering, and death. Pour on us anew your life-giving Spirit. Give us healing. Refresh us in your Zōē—your very life, your being Jesus, for your name’s sake. Amen.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’” John 11:25–26 NASB

Finding Gladness and Joy

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By Linda Rex

JOY
December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent—In spite of the overflow of Christmas decorations, holiday events and carols on the radio, I find an undercurrent of sadness and despair rearing its head here and there. There are memories of the past which bring sorrow and pleasure and there’s news of the present, both personal and community, which bring pain, anger, and compassion. How do I reconcile this season of Advent with the real struggles of the human heart and mind?

Whether we like it or not, we need to be able to come to terms with the contradiction or conflict between what we want to believe is true or do believe is true and what we experience in our day to day lives. There are times when we can’t help but ask, “What kind of God would …. ?”—and insert those questions which immediately come to our mind. They are all summed up in this—what kind of God would leave us in our hell and not come to deliver us?

We’re not the only ones who wrestle with the disconnect between reality and belief. Imagine believing that God has given you the responsibility and inspiration to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, so you go out and courageously begin to tell everyone to repent and believe, and the next thing you know you are rotting away in prison waiting for the day you will quite literally lose your head. And the Messiah who you were preparing the way for is doing nothing to deliver you. He’s your first cousin, after all, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? If he was really the Messiah, wouldn’t he intervene in a dramatic way to save the day?

Whether we like it or not, God seems to be a God of contradictions, of two seemingly polar opposites held together in the tension of love and grace we find in Jesus Christ. Here he is, a fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of his people, of the promises for deliverance, renewal, gladness and joy, and yet he comes as an infant, born of a virgin yet the cause of many other babies being slaughtered, growing up as a human boy ridiculed by his peers for being illegitimate, eventually rejected by his people, and executed on a shameful cross. The profound contradictions are an essential means of expressing the reality of Christ’s identity as being both fully God and fully man.

And this is where Advent finds its joy and gladness in the midst of sorrow, suffering, abuse, evil, and horror. What we must understand more than anything else is that we were never meant to be left alone in the midst of all we are going through. Even though these consequences are most certainly a result of our choices as human beings and the brokenness and imperfections of our cosmos and our humanity, we were never intended to have to resolve any of this on our own. We were always meant to be partners in our existence with the One who made it all.

A better question would be to ask, “What kind of God would so ache for his lost and suffering creation that he would set aside the privileges and community of his divinity to enter into his creation and begin to heal it from the inside out?” And what would it take for God to heal what he has made? It would require assuming upon himself what was broken and sinful, and step by step, moment by moment, hour by hour, within our humanity, forging a new existence for us even when it meant dying an excruciating death at the hands of those he came to save.

This seems all pie in the sky. Why even believe there is such a God? He doesn’t seem to care about the fact that I can’t come up with enough money to pay for Christmas presents this year. He doesn’t seem to care that my child is laying in a hospital bed, dying of incurable cancer. He seems indifferent to the reality that I cannot solve this problem with my family member who is shackled by a habit that won’t let him go. What kind of God would let these things go on and on and not solve them?

Jesus’ answer to John the Baptizer was much different that the one he was probably expecting. John wanted to know whether or not Jesus was the fulfillment of all the expectations of his people. By what was happening in his life at that moment, it really didn’t seem like he was. But Jesus sent his disciples back to John, saying “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 NASB) I am doing the work of the Messiah, he said, so don’t be offended if it doesn’t look the way you expect it to look or that I don’t release you immediately from your personal dilemma.

Did you notice what Jesus was doing for the poor people? He wasn’t giving them money. He wasn’t making them rich—he was preaching the gospel to them. People who needed to be healed were being healed, some people were even being raised from the dead, and others who were struggling were being given the message of hope, a call to turn away from themselves and to turn to Christ. In all these things, Jesus was fulfilling his role as Messiah, but there were many people who were present on earth at this time who did not experience what these people Jesus helped experienced. And John, as a witness to the Messiah’s ministry, was for a time one of these seemingly overlooked ones.

Perhaps John needed to be reminded of the story from his people’s history of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, three men who served with the prophet Daniel as leaders in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom of Babylon. The king built a great golden image in Dura and then told everyone they had to worship it or be thrown into a furnace. The day came when the three men were challenged by some Chaldeans with not obeying this decree. The king asked them why they would not obey him.

Their reply is instructive. They told the king that they would only worship Israel’s God and that their God would save them. But even if he didn’t save them, they would still not bow the knee to the king’s idol. They had the opportunity to face the possibility that God might not intervene for them in the way they expected and they determined beforehand that even if God didn’t come through in the way they expected, they would still believe and trust in the goodness and love of God. How many of us can say we would respond with the same fortitude, faith, and humility?

So, the story continues: They are thrown into the furnace which had been heated seven times hotter than before. In fact, it was so hot, that the men who threw them in died from the heat and fire. At this, the king’s anger began to subside. But after a while, the king saw four men walking around in the fire, one of which they described as being like “a son of the gods”. At this point the king called them out of the fire, and the three men came out, untouched by the flames.

Even though these three men bore witness to God, refusing to compromise their belief in him, they still were faced with death and destruction, the loss of life and liberty. God did not come through for them in the way they wanted him to. But they had already decided beforehand not to be offended by God’s lack of intervention in their circumstances. Are we as equally willing to allow God to be the God he is? Are we willing to, rather than asking God to repent and to change his mind, allow him to work things out his own way on his own time schedule, trusting in his perfect love?

This is a real struggle for us as human beings. If Jesus really is God in human flesh, where is he right now while my life is falling apart before my eyes? If God really does care about me and love me, then why doesn’t he intervene and remove my suffering and struggle? How can he be a loving God and expect me to deal with this pain, this personal struggle, day after day after day?

It is important to grab hold of the beautiful mystery of Christmas—of God coming into our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and rising again. This means there is no part of our broken human existence that he does not, in this moment, share in. Perhaps we must linger in the fire a little longer, but we were never meant to bear these flames alone. Maybe we must cry again for the loss of someone dear, but here is Jesus weeping with us, present in this moment by the comforting Spirit in our pain. Awaken to the spiritual reality that Jesus is in us, with us, for us. This isn’t just wishful thinking, but a true reality.

May the Holy Spirit awaken in you an awareness of the real, present Lord. May you begin to experience God’s comfort and infinite peace in the midst of your struggles and pain. May you not be offended that God does not meet your expectations of deliverance. And may you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are deeply loved and cherished, in spite of what your circumstances and feelings may be telling you in this moment. May you find and experience the inner gladness and joy which is solely a gift of the blessed Spirit of God straight from the heart of the Father through the indwelling Christ.

Dearest Abba, come to us. Meet us here in the flames of our suffering, grief, loneliness, and pain. Holy Spirit, make real to us the endless deep love of God. Remove our doubts and fear. Free us from the shackles of our resentment, bitterness, and feelings of offense. Forgive us for refusing to believe. Grant us instead the grace to rest, to trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, | And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; | Like the crocus | It will blossom profusely | And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. | The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, | The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. | They will see the glory of the Lord, | The majesty of our God. … And the ransomed of the LORD will return | And come with joyful shouting to Zion, | With everlasting joy upon their heads. | They will find gladness and joy, | And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–2, 10 NASB

“My soul exalts the Lord, | And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. | For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; | For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. | For the Mighty One has done great things for me; | And holy is His name.” Luke 1:46b-49 NASB

Not So Different After All

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By Linda Rex

October 27, 2019, Proper 25—Standing next to my husband at my mother-in-law’s visitation, I listened as he spoke with a family friend. He had grown up with these people and as part of a small farming community, they were each connected in a variety of ways, most specifically by their common history of family farms. As I listened to him talk, I realized the radical difference between someone who is isolated from and unfamiliar with death, and someone who sees death as the normal outcome of any creature’s existence, whether human or animal.

When someone has cared for animals, as farmers do, he or she has often experienced the life cycle from birth to death and understands that death is the normal end to any creature’s existence. But death is also devastating and destructive, and it is often fought with every weapon available. Because we value life and reject death, we often spend thousands of dollars to attempt to prevent or postpone a death which in the end is going to happen anyway. This can be one of the greatest struggles we face as humans—dealing with the reality of death and dying.

Indeed, it is a tragedy when we lose someone dear to us, when our life is shattered by the loss of someone who gave us great joy, love, and companionship. When we wake up each morning without our spouse or loved one, we are faced anew with the pain of our loss and the deep grief which goes with it. It is especially tragic when death takes away a baby or a child—someone who was just beginning their life—it seems so unfair and unjust. These are great losses, and they pierce us down to the depths of our heart, and they don’t just go away over time.

I believe the reason it hurts so much to lose someone to death is because this was not what we were created for. God intended us to eat of the tree of life and to live forever. He never wanted us to experience death and the separation that goes with it. But we made that choice—and continue to make that choice—as we choose to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, and we continue to believe and live out the lie that God doesn’t love us and doesn’t want what is best for us.

I would not want to think that I choose death, but when I reflect upon my life and the choices I have made about different things, I find that death is often the ultimate outcome of the choices I have made. Perhaps it is healthier, though, to recognize and acknowledge this than it is to believe that I have only chosen life. The gospel passage for this Sunday tells a story which reminds us that we need to see ourselves with clear vision and not to ignore our capacity to choose death over life.

Jesus told this parable, according to Luke, to “some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” He told of the Pharisee, a very righteous man who prided himself on following the law and keeping every rule established by the Jewish leaders. This man stood, as a good Jew would, and praying to himself, told God how grateful he was that he wasn’t like the tax collector who stood at the other end of the room. He named all the things he wasn’t and reminded God of all the things he did right.

He started out his prayer saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” What he failed to see or acknowledge was the simple truth—he was just the same as everyone else on the planet. He was just as much a sinner as the tax collector—he just didn’t see it and certainly didn’t want to admit it. One day he would die just like every other human being—and then what? What good would all his efforts be then, when he would be faced with the reality that he was a sinner just like everyone else?

A companion passage for this Sunday’s message is 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, where Paul has a frank conversation with his protégé Timothy, letting him know he is nearing the end of his life. Paul embraced his death, not fearing it, but rather looking forward to the receiving the “crown of righteousness” he would receive from Jesus in that day. He knew that the source of his righteousness did not lie within himself, but solely in the Lord Jesus. He did not fear death, but bravely walked toward it, trusting in the love and faithfulness of God in the midst of whatever situation he found himself. He knew in his next moment of consciousness he would be with Jesus and would live forever in glory with him.

The transformation of the solely pagan Roman Empire into one which accepted Christianity was partly due to the way in which early believers treated death. Many, when faced with torture or death for not renouncing Christ, chose to happily, with a song or word of praise on their lips, go forward into death. They did not fear it, but chose it over abandoning their faith in Christ. Death was not seen as an enemy but as a conquered foe, and as a passage into real life, life evermore in the presence of Jesus Christ.

They could do this because they were honest with themselves about the reality that they were sinners saved by grace. They knew the source of all life, of all their hope for the world to come, lay in the Lord Jesus who had entered into our suffering and death as God in human flesh, and had risen again, bearing our humanity into the presence of the Father. He brought all of us out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light—from death into life—giving us an eternal hope in the face of death and dying.

But the struggle we have as human beings is coming to the place where we are willing to say, “I’m no different than any other man—I too am a sinner.” We each need to come to the place where we acknowledge our need for what God has done for us in Christ.

We are each in the garden again, and God is inviting us to eat of the tree of life—choose Christ! What we don’t want to do is to continue to choose death by insisting on our own path of self-justification, of deciding for ourselves what is right, what is wrong, and how to get our own selves right before God. Jesus did all that is necessary—he invites us to turn to him in faith, trusting in him for all that we need.

Come to Jesus Christ and allow him to share with you his right relationship with his heavenly Father. In Christ, you are a forgiven, accepted, beloved “sinner”—a child of God. Believe it. Receive it. Embrace it. Live!

Dear Abba, heavenly Father, thank you for giving us life in your Son Jesus Christ and sending us your Spirit so that we may participate in this divine gift. May we humbly confess we are sinners who are in need of all Christ has done, is doing, and will do—free us from our self-justification, our self-righteousness, our stubborn resistance to life and insistence on the ways of death. Thank you for your faithfulness and love, and that you will finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.’” Luke 18:9–14

Sharing Our Wounds

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By Linda Rex

September 22, 2019, Proper 20—One of the most painful things I have experienced over the years is going through the consequences of a bad decision or decisions I have made, especially with regards to my significant relationships. It seems as though some consequences never end, even though we may have changed or done our best to make amends for the error done.

We often believe, however incorrectly, that if we just do the right thing from now on, our life will be much better. I’d like to say that is the case, but sometimes we have to go through the hard and messy stuff for a while before we see the benefits of changing the way we live.

The reality is that as broken human beings, our bent is toward doing things in a self-centered, self-preserving, self-fulfilling way. When we discover that life wasn’t meant to be lived with ourselves at the center and try to live a Christ-centered life, we often discover there are shackles and traps we have not seen that we have been caught in that we cannot escape easily and on our own.

As human beings, life can be wonderful, and then it can be hell. Sometimes the hell in our lives is the result of our own choices. Sometimes it is the result of the choices of those around us. Either way, we do have occasions when we wrestle with the ugliness of our broken humanity and the consequences of sin.

Here in the Western world today we do not always see the immediate consequences of our choices. One can live for many years on the edge financially before we finally hit the bottom. A person can play by the rules a long time and successfully hide an addiction, but in due time, the truth will come out, exposing a life of deceit, unfaithfulness, and/or worse.

Some types of our brokenness is socially acceptable and so we see no need to change anything, not realizing the harm we are doing to ourselves or to others. But consequences happen. We will at some point have to deal with the truth about God and about ourselves and come face-to-face with the reality we are not meant to be at the center of everything—Christ is.

The people of Judah came to a place where all they trusted in and counted on was going to be swept away. Starvation, war, enslavement—these were the consequences they were facing. Jeremiah grieved with the suffering of his people. He knew the sin of the people was very grave—unfaithfulness to their covenant God—and the consequences they were beginning to feel would only get worse. Why could they not see the path they were on? Jeremiah mourned—he lamented the fallen condition of his people, longing for their healing and renewal.

What Judah was called by Jeremiah to see was that, just as he shared their pain and suffering, so God also shared their pain and suffering. It was not enough for God to look upon his people from a distance and see them suffering the consequences of their choices. No, at the perfect time, God came and actually entered into the midst of their suffering. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus was Abba’s ultimate answer to the suffering of his people. Even though God’s people could never seem to get things right, still God would come himself and set things right.

Truly, our sinfulness as human beings is a sickness only the divine Physician can heal. The apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. We cannot and do not get ourselves right with God—Jesus came and made us right with God, and makes us right as we trust in his perfect, complete gift of himself in our place and on our behalf.

What we have is a Physician who is also the one who is sick. He became the patient, bearing the full weight of our illness and the consequences of our sin, including death on a cross, and brought us complete restoration and renewal in his very person.

When Jesus rose from the grave and ascended to his Father, he brought our broken humanity to a new place—to the place where by faith we live eternally in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit from his Father so we could share in his perfect relationship with Abba and be able to live the other-centered, Christ-centered lives we were created to participate in.

This does not mean that when we trust in Christ that all the consequences of our failures to love magically disappear. It seems we often have to wrestle with these for years as part of our calling to share in the sufferings of Christ. There are times when God graciously removes the consequences of our choices—healing venereal disease, curing alcoholism, or removing a hunger for cocaine. But this is not always the case. Sometimes our battle against such pulls is the Physician’s very cure and is the means by which he intends us to participate in him providing the cure for others with the same struggle.

The biggest take-away here is, God is present in the midst of our consequences. He may or may not remove or minimize them—we should ask, but accept he may not. He shares our struggle and our pain—as we allow. And when we trust in Christ and are baptized, we are placed within the body of Christ to share this journey with others who are facing the same struggles. We are meant to participate in a spiritual community—a hospital for sinners, you might say—where we are all, as broken human beings, finding our healing and renewal in Christ.

We have a divine Physician who is on call for us 24/7 and who cares about the smallest concern of our lives. We probably ought to listen to him and follow his guidelines for the care of our souls—to feed and nourish properly the temple of the Spirit and our minds and hearts. We probably ought to live the way he created us to live—loving him wholeheartedly and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

But at any moment, no matter the joy or pain, he is present in the Spirit to share what we are going through, to help us bear whatever we face, even if it is the consequences of our bad choices. He never meant for us to go through life alone, but always to be at the center, sharing every part of it with us.

Dearest Abba, thank you for giving us your Son as our on-call Physician, who is always present and available to us at any time. Thank you, Jesus, for coming yourself and bearing our troubles and trials, and freeing us from the shackles of evil, sin, and death on the cross, rising to bring us all to share in your unity with the Father in the Spirit. Turn our hearts to you, Lord Jesus, to trust you in faith. Fill us anew with your Spirit, giving us the heart to live in the truth of who we are as image-bears of our God who is love. Amen.

“I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief. Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for the wounds of my people?” Jeremiah 8:21-22 NLT

Walking in Christ

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By Linda Rex

PROPER 12—Reflections on when I was first baptized remind me of the disconnect there was between my baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection and the rest of my Christian life. Even though the baptism focused on repentance and accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior, it seems that once that event took place, then the rest was all up to me, even though I was a recipient of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, I had been taught the scriptures since I was a child, and had to memorize many for school. There were instructions about the ten commandments and the way of love, and warnings that I would reap what I sowed. I lived in constant fear that I would fall short of God’s enormous expectations (and I often did) and believed that God would reject me. My participation in taking the bread and wine once a year was often a desperate plea for forgiveness and an acknowledgement of my unworthiness in his sight. Even though I may have felt forgiven as I came to the table, this experience was short-lived—guilt and shame were my constant companions.

Unfortunately, I was laboring under a false concept of what it meant to be baptized and to be saved. In some ways, I understood what it meant, but at the same time I did not grasp the significance of dying and rising with Jesus. I did not realize that my death and subsequent life in Christ was always and ever a participation in Christ’s perfected and finished work. It was not all up to me—it was completely all up to him; I was saved by grace through faith.

Jesus, who was God in human flesh, did not need to be baptized and yet he obeyed his Father’s command given through John the Baptizer to be baptized for the remission of sins. Jesus was not baptized for his own sins, but for the sins of the whole world, identifying with each human being in our broken, sinful humanity. When we are baptized, it is a participation in his perfect work of baptism as well as a symbolic sharing in his death and resurrection.

This participation in Christ through baptism is merely a beginning of the new life which is ours by faith in Jesus. By faith we receive the anointing in the Holy Spirit by which we share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Father. Our life becomes a life of walking in the Spirit by faith in Christ—a new way of being which has its roots in the Son of God.

We do not suddenly become perfect and yet we are at the same time perfect in Christ—there is a paradox, a tension, to our lives. While on the one hand our perfected humanity is hidden with Christ in God, on the other this perfection is being worked into us daily as we live and walk in obedience to the Spirit. We are fully justified in Jesus but are daily being sanctified—we walk by faith, not by sight. We do not always see in ourselves or others the perfection which is ours even now in Christ.

Our focus is so often on moral perfection. This was the struggle in my early years as a Christian. But this is not God’s focus. He has already resolved the issue of moral perfection in Jesus. What he is working on now is our faith in Jesus Christ, our personal walk with him in the Spirit.

In Christ we are caught up into the inner life of the Trinity, of the Father, Son, and Spirit as they exist in perichoretic love and unity. We were created to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In Christ this is who we are as God’s adopted children. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in the giving of the Spirit, Jesus stands in our place on our behalf, enabling us to participate as God’s creatures in true union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, and in union and communion with one another, expressed most fully within the body of Christ, the church.

What before was a fear and anxiety-ridden struggle to attain a tiny measure of God’s favor has been replaced in our lives by a grace-based relationship filled with God’s love, humor, compassion and understanding. All of life is holy now, blessed by and healed by the presence and power of God through Jesus in the Spirit. Our lives are a participation in the perfect relationship Jesus has with our Father and his perfect expression of love for Abba and for others in the Spirit.

We don’t have to beg God for the least bit of his attention. No, he anticipates and looks forward to our encounters, for Jesus stands in our place on our behalf, bringing us into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. We feel his pleasure as we pray and sense his joy in our everyday life. We know his presence and sense his comfort when we grieve or go through painful experiences—he shares all of life with us. Whatever evil we may encounter in this world, we find he is already at work within it to redeem, restore and renew. And whatever praise or prayer or gift of obedience we bring—it is already perfected in Jesus.

We do not need to spend all our time in abjection or slavish attention, but rather in real moment-by-moment relationship, in the true love, humility and service which come in a complete dependence on God, knowing and accepting our need for Jesus, and rejoicing in the power and presence of the Spirit in our lives. We can live our lives in joy, drinking in of the blessings God richly showers upon us for our enjoyment—the beauty of a new spring day, the glory of a mountain vista, the pleasure of a pet’s affection, and the ecstasy of an intimate relationship with a spouse. In moments of sorrow or struggle, we can rest in his arms, trusting he is holding us and helping us through them, working all things for our best benefit.

What God has given us is true participation in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Abba. We have a loving, adoring, compassionate Father who has done everything necessary for us to have a personal, intimate relationship with him and to share in what he is doing in this world to bring the fullness of his kingdom into every area of our existence. We get to share in Christ’s mission by the Spirit through prayer, loving others, resisting evil, and caring for God’s creation. All of these are a true participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, of which baptism is the initial step and our weekly communion the ongoing sacrament.

Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Thank you for allowing us to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in his life in the Spirit, symbolically showing our participation through baptism and our sharing in the bread and the wine. May you finish what you have begun in us through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him,…” Colossians 2:6 NASB

Living in the Newness

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By Linda Rex

5th SUNDAY OF EASTER—As many of my friends and family know, I will be getting remarried next Saturday. I was sharing our story of repentance and renewal when a friend asked whether someone could really change that much. Perhaps one of the greatest struggles in our relationships with one another is this very question—is it really possible for people to change for the better?

We are still in the season of Easter, the time of renewal and redemption in the story of Jesus Christ. We have talked about how the Word of God set aside for a time the privileges of his divinity in order to join us in our humanity and was willing to go to the cross on our behalf so that we would be brought up into the divine circle of love and grace, the perichoresis of the Trinity.

As broken human beings, we muddle our way through life doing the best we can in every situation, often following the leadings of our heart and mind even when they lead us down some very difficult and painful paths. Years ago, as two broken people caught up in the legalistic religious mentality we were brought up in and drawing upon the broken template of our parents’ relationships as an example, my ex-husband, Ray, and I tried to piece together a happy marriage. We were good at the image of happiness, but in reality, we did not know the first thing about how to resolve our differences and we certainly didn’t know what it meant to love with the self-sacrificial and redemptive love of Jesus.

We had a marriage based on rules, on performance, rather than based in the love and grace of God himself. Our two wonderful children were raised in the midst of this brokenness and our greatest grief is what they had to suffer because of our failures to love. It took many years for God to work with the two of us to get us to the place where we were healed enough that we could move on. And it was a surprise to me that God wanted this renewal in our relationship to happen.

But this healing and renewal is meant to bear witness to the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. We are both fundamentally the same and will probably struggle with many issues similar to what we struggled with in the past. But we are both in a different place due to what God has done in each of our hearts and lives by his Holy Spirit.

As Christ has been at work within us and we have responded to his leading, we have both grown and healed, and are being renewed day by day. There is a humility and a willingness to be taught new ways of relating and resolving issues. There is a grace that has come through suffering and sorrow. Our personal renewal isn’t always evident to those around us—it is often buried under the default of our old habits and ways of talking and acting. But God is making all things new and he has begun this renewal in our relationship as a witness to his glory and grace.

When there is so much hurt and pain in a relationship, it is very difficult for the adults and the children to say, “I forgive you,” and to let people start over. The wounds and the bad memories often get in the way of reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation often have to begin with an intentional decision rather than a desire or feeling. The Lord Jesus reconciled all humanity with the Father—we are to participate with him in this reconciliation by choosing to forgive and to be reconciled in all the relationships in our lives which are broken.

The renewal Jesus is bringing about is something which he accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and is working into our individual experience by the pouring out of his Holy Spirit. In our broken relationships with one another we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to express the redemptive purpose and power of God, bearing witness to God’s ability to renew and restore in the midst of our brokenness and failures to love.

When Jesus says, “Behold I am making all things new,” he isn’t just talking about some distant future event. He is also talking about right now, in each and every moment. God’s way of being is one of renewal. His purpose is to move in our hearts and lives such a way that renewal is a continual process. What we are today, if we are willing and respond to the work of the indwelling Christ, will be different from what we will be tomorrow—Jesus is bringing us deeper and deeper into intimate relationship with the Father by the Spirit.

As we draw closer to God, we begin to change. We begin to put on more and more of the nature of God, just as children over time begin to resemble their parents. The apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11 NASB) Even though by all appearances, we may be just the same, God has declared in Christ that we are washed, sanctified, and justified. We are made new, and as Christ goes to work within us by the Holy Spirit, over time that newness becomes a reality for us individually.

There are no promises that the man I love or I will get it right the second time around. So our faith isn’t in ourselves, but in the God who brought us together and who lives within us. We are committed to Christ and to one another—the rest is up to our all-powerful God. Through Jesus and by his Spirit, we trust that our second marriage will reflect the mercy and glory of our Triune God of love. We rest in Christ’s ability and power, not our ability and capacity to make this work. Loving relationship is a work of the Spirit; may he create a beautiful loving relationship which gives God glory and honor for the rest of our time together.

Abba, thank you for your ministry of reconciliation which you have accomplished through your Son Jesus and are making real in this world, in our lives and in our relationships by your Holy Spirit. Please bring healing and wholeness to every broken relationship. Enable us to choose forgiveness, to choose to be reconciled to one another, just as you have reconciled us to you. Bind us together in loving, gracious, and truth-filled relationships through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’ And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” Rev 21:3-5