By Linda Rex
Wednesday night I stood in front of the church building near the road with Maria, and later with Betty, so I could hand out candy and invite people in for cocoa and cookies. It was fun to see the kids in their costumes, and to appreciate the efforts of their parents to see that the kids were kept safe while they trick-or-treated.
I was reminded of how when I was a kid, my parents did not observe Halloween. We watched the kids go by, having left the lights off in the front of the house so they wouldn’t ring the doorbell. When we could sneak out, brothers and I liked to hide in the camelia bushes and ferns in front of the house so we could startle those who walked by. I don’t think we were ever very successful in our efforts, though.
My parents were diligent in their efforts to please God, and since they believed Halloween was a pagan holiday which celebrated darkness and evil, they didn’t want anything to do with it. I can appreciate their heart with regards to wanting to do what was right in God’s sight, but I have since learned that the Halloween we celebrate today is different than what was originally on the Christian calendar. Halloween was converted to Christian use in conjunction with All Saints’ Day.
All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) occurs the night before All Saints’ Day, which occurs every year on November 1. All Saints’ Day is celebrated by many traditions as a day to honor faithful believers who have died. For example, the Episcopal Church in America says this feast commemorates all saints, known and unknown. They consider All Saints’ Day to be one of the seven principal feasts of the church year, and one of the four days recommended for the administration of baptism. Many churches celebrate All Saints’ Day the Sunday following November 1 rather than on that date which often falls in the middle of the week. All Saints’ Day is meant to be a time when believers celebrate the miracle of the resurrection, in that those who have already died are safely at home with Jesus because of what he did in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The All Hallows’ Eve celebration which occurs the night before All Saints’ Day was originally intended to make a mockery of the powers of darkness and evil. Death has no real power any more because Jesus entered death and penetrated it down to its very core and exited the other side in glory, taking our human nature with him. The apostle Paul celebrated what Christ accomplished for us in 1 Cor. 15:20-22: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” We often read this section of Scripture at funerals because we need to be reminded of our hope.
We are freed from death’s power once and for all in and by Jesus Christ! As Paul wrote: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:51-57 NASB).
There is a victory over sin and death which is ours in Jesus Christ. It is only right to celebrate the miracle of what Jesus has done for us. Death and sin have, in reality, reached their end—their time of influence and power are over, even though we still experience their effects in this life. The hurt that comes when we lose a loved one is real—we were not created for separation but for union and communion. But we must always remember, this life is not the end. It was never meant to be. In Christ and because of Christ, there is life beyond the grave.
The early Christians faced death often—they were persecuted, tortured, and martyred for their belief in Jesus. Yet even the weakest of them, and the women and children, bravely faced such horrific experiences because of their strong belief that in Christ, death wasn’t the end. Death, and the suffering which went with it, was only a door they would go through so they could once again be with Jesus. Even though death and suffering to us are horrific and awful, to those who trust in Christ they are merely passing birth pangs in preparation to our birth into our glorified humanity.
When I worked at the nursing home, death was part of the normal course of events. We cared for people, and when it was their time (and sometimes when it seemed it wasn’t), they moved on. Death for anyone left behind is not easy. We know death is a time to celebrate their new birth, not just to grieve our own loss. But it is still hard, and it is still painful.
Lately I have found myself unaccountably brought to tears or deep sadness. The truth is, I am grieving, and have been grieving for some time—grieving the loss of several very dear people and important relationships. Over the years I have lost my parents, grandparents, and my father-in-law, and some close friends. I have lost companions in the faith, and dearly loved members of my congregations. Each of these people held a special place in my heart and I miss them. My life has not been the same since they left. I have moved on, but I still feel their loss.
Sometimes we are angry with those who have left because they didn’t take better care of themselves, or because they left everything in a horrible mess, or because they were such an integral part of our lives, we don’t know how to go on without them. We feel guilty about being angry, but anger is what we must feel and deal with before we can move on. Death is a violation and an invasion of our peace and our safety, and such violations naturally create anger. We use that anger to deal with what is—the reality of our loss—and we, step by agonizing step—move on into a new place. We create a new existence which doesn’t involve those who are gone in the same way.
Halloween can remind us that evil, sin, and death are destined to come to a complete end because of Jesus. All Saints’ Day can remind us that moving on with our lives doesn’t necessarily mean we move on without those we love. The truth is we are all connected to one another in Jesus Christ. And that connection doesn’t end when someone dies. In reality, death cannot in any way separate us from one another, for we are all one in Christ and by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus took on our humanity, he did not only take on the humanity of good people. He did not just die bearing the humanity of good people. He took on every person’s humanity, becoming sin for us, in our place, on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Jesus in our place and on our behalf, stands in glory today, bearing our humanity—which has been cleansed and glorified. This is our hope, and our expectation, and our joy. This is what we celebrate!
Dear Abba, thank you that in the face of evil and death we have hope. Thank you that we can trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ to bring us beyond death into our new life in him. Thank you that you are with us in the midst of grief and sorrow and will carry us through our pain and loss into a new existence. We trust in your faithfulness and love, in Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain;/A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,/And refined, aged wine./And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples,/Even the veil which is stretched over all nations./He will swallow up death for all time,/And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces,/And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth;/For the LORD has spoken./And it will be said in that day,/‘Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us./This is the LORD for whom we have waited;/Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.’” Isaiah 25:6–9 NASB
By Linda Rex
Last weekend I was in Grove City, Ohio for a Together in Christ Summit. During my time there we visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati where we looked at exhibits which talked about the history of slavery here in America, as well as the reality of slavery today in countries around the world. We took some tests on implicit bias, discovering our own hidden proclivities towards prejudice. And we had some excellent discussions on what we as followers of Jesus Christ can do to open up safe spaces in which both victim and perpetrator may find healing and wholeness.
The call we all felt, I believe, was to participate more fully in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world with regards to these issues. We are called, as God’s redeemed children, to be reconciled to God as he has reconciled himself with us in his Son Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We participate in Jesus’ work of reconciliation as we, as forgiven and redeemed children, through repentance and forgiveness are by faith in Christ reconciled with God and one another.
Parts of the exhibits were difficult to look at, due to the awfulness of the way people over the millennia have been treated by their fellow humans. The most painful for me to see were the exhibits on the third floor which were dedicated to modern slavery. One would think that by now human beings would have learned something from all we have experienced as time has passed. But greed is still greed, and economic success and lucrative production based on the suffering of certain people groups still has the power to hold people in its grasp. And whether I like it or not, there are ways in which I participate in this suffering without even realizing it.
As I stepped into the restored building which was once used as a slave pen, I felt the presence of those who had been held against their will, and grieved. It seems that throughout history, people have preyed on other people—the lost and the least victimized, used, and discarded by others who were in reality their brothers and sisters in Christ. What is Abba’s heart about all this?
We can learn something about this in the story of his chosen people, Israel, when God heard their cry in the land of Egypt where they were enslaved. The only reason this group of people was in Egypt was because their forefather Joseph had, by God’s intervention, saved Egypt from certain disaster during a famine (Gen. 41-46). At that point, they were important people in Egypt due to Joseph’s position as the ruler second only to Pharoah himself. But as time passed and circumstances changed, they became enslaved to the Egyptians.
There is a way in which humans begin to view one another which leads to such things happening. In Exodus 1, we read how the Egyptians began to fear the Israelites, so they set harsh taskmasters over them. Ironically, the more they were oppressed, the more the Israelites grew in numbers. In response, the king of Egypt demanded that their sons be killed as they were born, while their daughters could be saved (note the gender inequality). But the midwives and mothers managed to find a way to avoid doing this, because their fear of God was greater than their fear of the king.
But when one group of people subjugates another, the oppression merely grows worse, and this is what happened in the land of Egypt. The government began legislating oppression, moving the enslavement of this people group deeper into the nation’s consciousness. One of the tragedies of slavery in America is how we, a democratic people, voted into place such things as considering a slave to only be 3/5 of a person and fleeing slaves having to be returned to their owners, no matter the state of the circumstance involved. Written into the laws of various states in this nation were statements about the status of people based upon the color of their skin, whether they were born to a white man or a white woman, or if they married someone who was a slave.
This mentality of over/under, of greater than/less than, isn’t unique to America, nor to the people of ancient Egypt. This is a way of thinking and believing which arises out of our broken humanity. We set ourselves against one another, being blinded by fear, greed, and simply the lies we believe about God and each other.
Going back to the story of the Israelites in slavery, we find that God had a purpose for this particular people. They had a unique relationship with God, not because of anything they had done, but because of what their forefather had done when he had trusted in the goodness and mercy of his God, believing the promises made to him that one day he would be the father of many nations (Gen. 17:4). God had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and these enslaved people were the chosen ones, beloved of Abba, the ones through whom the Savior of the world would come.
What the Pharoah of Egypt and his people did not realize was that they were viewing the Israelites through a false lens. Their paradigm was inaccurate and needed to be changed. They worshipped a variety of gods, none of which had anything to do with the One who created and sustained all things. The ruler of this people, no doubt, was used to being treated as though he were divine, and expected that his word was law, with no other law being superior to his. I imagine that submission was a very foreign concept to this Pharoah and that he saw himself as being above any law or authority other than his own.
When Moses brought the word of God to Pharoah, telling him to let Abba’s people go free, this began a conflict between God and the king which affected the two nations profoundly. At first, Moses’ efforts only resulted in harder bondage and greater suffering. But God told him:
“‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them. I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore say to the children of Israel: “I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the Lord.’” (Gen. 6:2-8 NASB)
God’s purpose from the beginning was to bring us all into relationship with himself, to truly know him as we are known by him. He also purposed to redeem all humanity, freeing us from our slavery to sin and to death. This meant his interaction with the nation of Egypt via the Pharoah would involve a revelation of his being as the One God, the Lord, who is the Redeemer of his people. Unfortunately, Pharoah’s resistance to this revelation would mean suffering and death for many of his people, including his very own firstborn son.
God’s judgments on Egypt were not meant to harm, but were meant to free his people and to reveal his power, glory, and goodness. They were based in his covenant love and his compassion for his people who were being oppressed. When God opposed and resisted the stubborn pride and arrogance of Pharoah, there were consequences and many suffered as a result. The plagues which affected the Egyptians were a direct attack upon the false gods they trusted in and were meant to teach them the difference between idols and the true God so they could come to know God for who he really was. The resistance of Pharoah against God provided a venue in which the Lord revealed his covenant love and grace toward the nation of Israel through whom one day the Deliverer would come who would deliver all nations from evil, sin, and death.
The cost of resistance to the purposes and ways of our loving God is often a price we don’t want to pay, but we do it all the time. Slavery in America was insidious and awful. The cost of eradicating it was tremendous and included suffering and death for many people. And the sad thing is, we are still fighting this battle even today. Suffering and death are the result of resisting the love and grace of our good God, and refusing to live in the truth of who we are as those made in his image. We are meant to live in oneness in which we, though unique in our persons and relations, are equals. This is our identity—and when we don’t live in the truth of this in our relationships with one another, there are painful, awful consequences which permeate all of life.
In Christ, God has reconciled each and every person with himself, and is calling each and every one into relationship with himself by the Spirit. He calls us by his precious Spirit to live together in the oneness we were created for and redeemed by Christ to share in. Christ revealed Abba’s heart as he ministered to and embraced the lost and the least of these when he came to share in our humanity. In the sending of his Spirit, he breathes out on each of us the new spirit of unity and oneness we were created for. May we open our hearts and minds and willingly embrace our new humanity, beginning to live and walk in this truth, no matter the cost.
Abba, thank you for offering us forgiveness in your Son Jesus. Grant us repentance of all the ways in which we enslave and subjugate one another, and treat each other as if we were less than or worthless. Grant us the grace to forgive one another and to be reconciled to one another and you even as you have reconciled yourself to us in Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I make you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.’ So Moses and Aaron did it; as the Lord commanded them, thus they did.” Exodus 7:1-6 NASB
By Linda Rex
Life never ceases to amaze me with it’s twists and turns, and unexpected movements. It is rare that my life has been on an even keel–there’s always something at work in it bringing disruption, or concern, or just adjustment.
Sometimes the difficulty is a long-term illness which ends in death. Its timing may or may not be predictable, but death is the only possible outcome in this life. During a long-term terminal illness the grieving process very often occurs before the death, along with some grieving after. Very often death is seen as a release from suffering, and a blessing to both the loved one and the caring family.
Death was never meant to be a part of the human condition. We were created for life, the life Jesus described by Jesus as knowing the Father and him whom he sent, his Son Jesus Christ. This is life in loving relationship, an interpenetrating oneness of equal yet distinct persons.
Separation, division, or loss of relationship was never intended to be a part our relationship with God or each other. But it is, because of our choice to turn away from the intimate relationship with God we were created for. At Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the tree if the knowledge of good and evil, sin and death entered our human existence. We stubbornly embraced a twisted view of God and who we are, as excluded from relationship with him and in broken relationship with one another. Since then, our human existence has never been the same.
However we may feel about what is written in the Bible in regards to death, we are–no matter what we believe about the afterlife–faced with its reality at some point. Death, and the separation from one another which comes with it, brings heartache and grief. This is because something has occurred which we were not meant to have to experience.
But this need not be a bad thing. Experiences such as these have been redeemed by God in and through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. God can take these experiences and use them to create stronger bonds between us and him, and between us and others.
In Christ not only are we bound to God forever in Christ’s perfected humanity (hypostatic union), but by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, we participate in his perfect union with our Abba by the Spirit. It is in Christ that we are bound together with one another in spiritual community. It is also true that the Spirit is always at work creating community, often in forms we don’t recognize because they may not have any religious trappings.
Family is meant to be a spiritual community which reflects the nature of God as revealed in Christ. When the Spirit is at work in a family, the relationships reflect the inner relations of the Triune God, where there is harmony, humility, mutual submission, and outgoing love. There is a pouring out from and receiving from one another–an endless movement of gracious love which defines God’s very nature as love.
God has always lived in this way, and this is the way of being we were created for, which we lost, but which Christ restored to us in his saving work. This means when we lose someone dear to us through the momentary separation which is death, the best thing to offer the grieving one is loving, gracious relationship. An unconditional relationship–listening, affirming, accepting, and just being present–are critical and essential gifts to offer someone who has lost a dear one.
This means we don’t have to come up with the right thing to say or do, but rather, in the Spirit, we can just be present in Christ with them in the moment. We can remind them they are not alone in their pain, for whatever Satan or our human brokenness has done to attempt to separate us from God or one another has ultimately failed. In Christ we are forever held in the center of God’s love and life. God knows, understands, and participates with us in our loss, suffering and pain. We are not alone.
We have the assurance that there is one relationship which, having been established in Christ, and being brought into reality in individual lives by the Spirit, we will never he separated from. Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ. We are loved simply because we are, and we are his.
And as we face having to redraw the plans of our lives due to a loved ones death, we can be assured that we need not do this alone. Our life is not over–God’s mercies are new every morning and he has new plans for our life which will bring us joy and fulfillment as we participate with Christ in what he has for us.
Finding a new normal is a process which may take years–but there is no set agenda to it. Part of the process may include anger, depression, and denial. The grief may ebb and flow like the ocean’s tide, taking us sometimes by storm or sneaking up on us when we least expect it.
But in the midst of it all, we can be assured we are never alone. We as friends and family of those who have lost a loved one can offer our faithful presence and understanding, with a listening ear and comforting shoulder to cry on. And we can point them to their loving and faithful God who has promised to never leave or forsake them.
Indeed, in Christ, death has been defeated. It has lost its power. And we share in this victory over sin and death as we offer one another comfort, unconditional love, and assurance of faithful relationship in the midst of death and other losses. Just as God in Christ by the Spirit ministers his love and grace to those who grieve, we also share in that ministry to those near and dear to us who grieve.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love and grace. Thank you that we can count on you to be with us and to carry us through our losses and suffering. Enable us to bear one another’s burdens when they become too great to be borne alone. Empower us to offer hope, comfort, and faithful relationship to those who have lost loved ones. We trust this is all possible through Jesus our Lord by your Spirit. Amen.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39 NASB
By Linda Rex
The other day I was sitting outside in a garden when I felt a breeze begin to blow across my face. The tree branches swayed and bent with the movement of the wind. The air was comfortably warm, and the color of the deep blue sky contrasted with the browns and grays of the winter foliage.
As the gentle wind blew the trees about, I was reminded of what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit. He said we don’t really know where the wind comes from or where it is going. In the same way, he said, we don’t know where and how the Spirit is at work in someone. The Spirit is not a thing we control or manipulate—the Spirit is a person we have a relationship with.
It seems when we come up against struggles in this life or we experience difficulty with being unable to change what we would like to see changed, we often blame God or ourselves for it. If we are a believer in Christ, we may even accuse ourselves of not having enough of God’s Spirit, or not praying hard enough, or of not “being in the Word” enough. We pour out upon ourselves condemnation for our failures and shortcomings.
It is easy to lay the blame for much of our faults and difficulties at our own door. If only I had…. If I just would…. And often, there is good reason for us feeling we are to blame. There may be some basis in fact.
It is just as easy to lay the blame elsewhere, at other people’s feet. I wouldn’t have this problem if he hadn’t…. Or, if she hadn’t done that, then I wouldn’t be in this position right now. There’s always room to blame someone or something.
Yet Jesus, in his preaching, taught us to throw away all the stones. None of us should be casting stones at anyone else, since we are all equally guilty and at fault. There is no place for stone-casting in the kingdom of God (John 8:1-11).
We can forget, though, that we may still be in our stone-casting mode when it comes to ourselves. We may hold things against ourselves which God forgave a long time ago. In fact, God forgave it all millennia ago on the cross—so why do we hold onto it? Why do we wander about in the darkness, thinking we are rejected or unloved by God, when in reality he has forgiven and is forgiving us?
In our struggle against those things in our lives which do not reflect the glory of Christ we were created to bear, we can find ourselves wallowing in our failures. Life is a struggle, full of difficulties and pains and griefs. We are going to trip up and not live in the way we know we should. Other people are going to point the finger and remind us of our shortcomings. But what we do with our failures is critical.
We must not lie about them. The apostle John says when we act as if we don’t have any faults, we are lying and not walking in the truth (1 John 1:5-10). To lie about, ignore or deny our failures means we are walking about in the darkness. We are not walking in truth.
The truth is we are all walking in the Light of God’s presence in each moment of our lives. By the Spirit we are all in the presence of God at all times. There is no existence apart from God’s Being as Father, Son, and Spirit. Whatever we do, good or bad, is in God’s presence—to say we have not done anything wrong is to say something that God already knows isn’t true. So why even try to pretend we are perfect?
When Jesus ascended to heaven, he sent the Spirit from our Father—he gave us the indwelling presence of God within. This is a perfect gift, as it is the gift of an ongoing relationship with Abba through Jesus in the Spirit—a relationship we were created for and were intended to have from before time began. This relationship is not dependent upon our perfection, but solely dependent upon God’s infinite love which was demonstrated to us in his Son Jesus and what he did for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The struggle we may have as individuals is receiving this gift and embracing the truth we live as forgiven sinners each and every moment of our lives. Sometimes the idol we need to cast down is the belief we could, if we tried hard enough, attain perfection of some kind in this life. This doesn’t mean anything goes, but rather we live daily in the humility of our creatureliness—we’re capable of the worst, but God has declared that’s not who we are. Rather, we are forgiven, beloved, and accepted in his Son Jesus—he is our saving grace.
Laying down the stones we’d prefer to cast at ourselves is hard to do sometimes. It may be that castings rocks at ourselves is the normal thing for us to do, since everyone who we truly cared about has done this to us—so we believe this is what we deserve. We may feel better, temporarily, about ourselves if we cast a few stones, because casting stones is easier than facing up to our failures and asking for forgiveness and help with them. There is some measure of pride in being able to cast stones at ourselves rather than humbly owning our need to repent and trust in Christ, asking him to transform us by his Spirit.
In their novel Healing Stones, Steve Arterburn and Nancy Rue create a character who struggles with a major personal failure and who desperately wants to make things right. At one point her counselor hands her a rock, and says to her, “…take this stone with you…and find a use for it besides throwing it at yourself.” The truth is, there are times when our worst enemy is ourselves. We can be more of an accuser than the Accuser himself—and save him the effort in the process.
We don’t always know what the Spirit is doing in us or in those around us. The process of healing is intricate and difficult, and very time-consuming. The work the Spirit does in a person’s mind and heart is often hidden and isn’t seen until after the fact—we see the effects, not the actual work the Spirit does.
We can participate in the healing process in others and in ourselves by throwing away our rocks and stones. In fact, we may even consider turning them into something useful instead. Rather than condemning others for their failures, perhaps we can help them–being honest enough about our own failures we could come alongside them and help them to grow and heal in ways in which we didn’t receive help and encouragement.
This opens up space for the Spirit to do an even greater work of healing and renewal. Sometimes our failures are, when we surrender them to the grace of God in Christ and the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, the means by which the wind of the Spirit brings hope to others. In this way, we participate in the grace given in Jesus for all humanity and find healing for ourselves in the process.
Abba, thank you for embracing us in spite of our failures and weaknesses. Thank you for embracing us in your grace, in the gift of your Son and the Spirit. Holy Spirit, blessed Wind of God, blow in and through us, filling us anew with the heart and mind of the Father, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8 NASB
By Linda Rex
Lately I’ve been going out the door in the morning saying to myself, “We need to take the tree down—it’s been up long enough.” I don’t know what it is about putting away the Christmas decorations, but I just don’t like doing it. Not because of the work involved, but because of the temporary loss of the reminder of the goodness, joy, and peace God brought in his Son Jesus.
I love the colors and the nativity scenes. I enjoy the way all the decorations remind me of why Jesus came. I have observed the Old Testament holy days, and I have observed the Christian holy days. This particular one, Advent and Christmas, has an amazing ability to capture the heart and mind of young and old. We find ourselves singing of peace, hope, love, and joy. And we feel our hearts warm up towards others in new ways when they wouldn’t otherwise.
This season also has the capacity to bring great sorrow and grief. When the Christmas season is a source of sadness and regret, it can leave such pain in our hearts. The pain, I believe, is so deep and real because it is an expression of great loss—a loss Abba never meant to have happen.
Indeed, it was not God’s purpose we live with sorrow, grief, suffering, and loss. It’s not what we were created for. No, he meant for us to share in his eternal life of intertwined oneness with God and one another. We have all been bound together in Christ, and we all gain our life and being from the God who made us.
Our lives and experiences are all interwoven together, and we are meant to be living in the same uniqueness of personhood with equality and oneness of being God lives in as Father, Son, and Spirit. We were not meant to have to suffer sin’s consequences or death. No, we were meant to share life together as beloved children of God in the hope, peace, joy, and love we celebrate during Advent.
The good news about taking down the Christmas tree is we get to put it back up again next winter. The seasons come again and again, and we are reminded anew of the miracle of the Christ child, of when God came in human flesh.
This year taking down the tree reminds me of how Mary and the disciples took Jesus’ lifeless body down off the cross. No doubt they dreaded the process—and it was very painful for them. Even though Mary knew this probably would happen to Jesus, I’m sure it did not make it any easier for her to accept when it did.
Even though we celebrate the birth of Messiah at Christmas, we are reminded anew of the end which loomed over him his entire life. Abba knew the hearts of humankind—that we would not protect and care for his Son, but would reject and murder him instead. Abba’s love for us, though, was greater than any concern he may have had for Jesus in his humanity. Both Abba and Jesus knew at some point the celebration would be over, and the Christ would take the path to the cross. But they also knew that would not be the end.
When we take the ornaments and other doodads off the Christmas tree, we wrap or box them up, and we lay them in tubs, and put them away in a dark closet for a year. In this same way, the human body of Jesus was taken down off the cross, wrapped in linen, and then laid in a tomb. The door to the tomb was shut and then sealed. As far as the disciples knew, this was the end of the story for Jesus. He was shut away in the grave, gone from their lives.
But it was only a passing moment of time. Jesus told the disciples he would lay in the grave for three days, and then rise. The grave would not conquer Jesus—it had no control over him. For Jesus was God in human flesh—and his Abba was not going to leave him there, but would by the Spirit raise him from the dead.
The story of the infant in the manger does not end with Christmas, but follows throughout the year the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus’ story doesn’t end in the grave, but actually gains momentum—the movement from the grave to his presence with Abba also involves the sending of the Spirit to indwell human hearts. When we look at Jesus Christ today, we find he is busy and active in this world, fulfilling the mission Abba gave him long before any of us existed.
Though the ornaments and decorations for Christmas may lay in the closet again for a while, I know eventually we will pull them out again. We will put up our worn-out tree with its twinkly lights, and be reminded of the ever-living Lord our Light, who was pleased to dwell with men. We will hang our homemade ornaments and colorful ribbons, and remember God so loved us, he gave us his Son Jesus Christ. As we set out one more time the little nativity set, we will be encouraged that God’s love never fails, but is new every morning.
In spite of evil, in spite of death, and in spite of the brokenness of our humanity, we have hope, peace, joy, and love in Abba’s perfect gift. The Spirit reminds me again today not to sorrow, but to be thankful. Whatever prayers I may offer for the suffering and grieving, God has already answered in the gift of his Son Jesus, and he will answer in the presence and power of his Holy Spirit. Whatever comfort I may offer someone in the midst of their sadness and loss is only an echo of the divine Comforter sent by Abba through his Son Jesus.
Whatever these decorations mean to me, they are merely pointers to a greater reality, to a real hope which we have in the love and faithfulness of God as expressed in the gift of His Son Jesus Christ. As they come down and are packed away, I am reminded every death now has a resurrection, because of what Jesus has done. Jesus cannot be stuffed in a box or a tomb and put away. No, he inevitably will rise in greater glory and majesty, for that is just Who he is—our glorified Lord and Savior. And one day we will rise with him. What a joyful day that will be!
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for joining us in our humanity, and sharing every part of our lives. Thank you, Jesus, for taking us with you through death and resurrection so we may share life with you, Abba, and the Spirit forever. Please be near with your comfort and peace all those who are facing grief and loss. Your heart and mine go out to them, and I know you will send your Comforter to heal, comfort, and renew. Thank you again for your faithful love and grace through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“For those who live in Jerusalem, and their rulers, recognizing neither Him nor the utterances of the prophets which are dread every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning Him. And though they found no ground for putting Him to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed. When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead; and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people.” Acts 13:27-31 NASB
By Linda Rex
As one who has suffered on occasion from the blight of depression, I have a sympathetic heart for anyone who experiences living in this dark place. When a person is in the midst of such sadness and grief, it can take all of his or her effort just to do the simplest tasks of life.
This is not a place other people can come to and pull the sufferer out of. It is rather a place where those near and dear can come alongside and offer support, prayer, and encouragement. The best gift a person can offer to one suffering with depression is a constant and faithful relationship—a living presence with a willingness to sit in the darkness with the one struggling.
Sometimes we choose our darkness. Sometime the darkness is a result of other people’s bad choices. And other times, the darkness just is—it exists through no fault of our own. It is merely a result of health issues or circumstances. Darkness—an inner weight of crushing sadness and grief, or just loss of joy—can happen to anyone. Being depressed is not a sin, although it may at times be a symptom of an inner struggle.
For some of us, being depressed comes easily. The negativity through which we see the world becomes a lens which darkens our view each and every moment of our lives. This causes us to miss many opportunities for joy. We can be so used to the darkness that when the light enters, we close our eyes to protect them from its brightness.
Here during Advent, as we approach Christmas and the New Year, we may find ourselves resisting the holiday spirit, and feeling overwhelmed by loss and grief for various reasons. It is hard to feel upbeat when your heart is broken and your thoughts are filled with memories of what was and what could have and should have been. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness during a season which should be filled with great joy.
The Holy Spirit calls to us during Advent to remember the One who joined us in our darkness, who didn’t feel it was enough just to say he loved us, but who actually came and sat in the sadness, grief, sorrow, and death with us. For God it was not enough just to be gracious and loving—he did gracious and loving. He took on our humanity and lived shoulder-to-shoulder with each of us.
God’s judgment on sin and our proclivity to evil and our preference for the darkness was the precious gift of a baby in a manger—the Word of God in human flesh—Immanuel, God with us. God’s judgment on our darkness was a gift of joy in the Person of his Son. He judged all humanity worthy of grace and worthy of salvation, worthy of his presence in the midst of their evil, suffering, and death.
That dark, starry night as the shepherds sat with their flocks on a hill outside of Bethlehem, God entered this broken world welcomed by Joseph and Mary as the fulfillment of the word of God through an angel. This little baby may have seemed insignificant and unimpressive in his humble circumstances, but his birth was the cause of the celebration of the angels. As we read in Luke 2:
“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” (Luke 2:8-14 NKJV)
Here was a message from God to his people—a message of peace and good will from God toward his people—a message of joy. These shepherds were astonished and overwhelmed, but their response was to seek out this baby to welcome him.
In our personal darkness, we may feel as though God has forgotten us, or as though we are lost in a dark night, barely holding ourselves together. But the truth we need to be reminded of is that God’s heart toward us has not changed. He is faithful and he still loves and cares for us. God has come into our darkness in the Person of the Word of God, and in Jesus Christ has lived our life, died our death, and carried us from death into life in his resurrection.
And it was not enough for God to join us in our broken humanity. He also sent his Spirit—pouring out on all the gift of life in his Son. The call to faith, is the call to believe in and embrace the joy, the good will of God toward each and every person in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. God has given us an inner source of joy in the gift of his personal presence in and with us in the Holy Spirit. As the psalmist said: “All my springs of joy are in you.” (Ps. 87:7b NASB)
The reality is, when we are in a dark place such as depression, depravity, or despair, we need a source beyond ourselves to raise us up and deliver us. We need a source of joy which is real and endless, and which will not be squelched by our stubborn desire to remain in the darkness. We need “springs of joy” to draw upon.
And God has given us this in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. We celebrate the breaking in of heaven into our darkness this time of year, and we find in the birth of Jesus Christ the hope, peace, and joy we would never have otherwise. He is the source of our true life, a life which God has lived in for all eternity, a life he is determined to share with you and me for all the eons to come. He calls us to trust—to believe in the truth: God is here. God is near. And he is with us forever. Immanuel—the most precious gift of all!
Dear Abba, thank you! Thank you for the precious gift of joy. Thank you for not leaving us in our darkness, sorrow, grief, and depravity, but giving us a way out—your own Son. Fill us by your Spirit with all your hope, peace, joy, and love—we do not find these things within ourselves. They are a gift. And so we thank you, and praise you with the angels, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“O sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done wonderful things, His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him. The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; break forth and sing for joy and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout joyfully before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Psalm 98 NASB
By Linda Rex
Five years ago, when I first arrived in Tennessee, I was visiting with people after services during our Community Café free meal when I noticed a lady who seemed to be in tears on the other side of the room. I remember going over to her and asking her if I could help. We had a long conversation that day about all the struggles she was having in her life. I prayed for her, and hoped in my heart she would experience God comfort and peace in the midst of her struggles.
As time passed, I and the members of Good News Fellowship began to get to know this woman better. And as we watched, she grew in her relationship with Jesus and her love for God and his ways. She still had struggles as she continued her journey of growing up in Christ, but she was learning to live and walk daily in a relationship of love and grace with God and others. It was wonderful for me and my spiritual family at Good News Fellowship to see her blossom and grow as time went by.
This journey she was taking was the journey of faith, of developing a deeper relationship with the God who made each of us in his image and who is growing each of us up into the likeness of his Son Jesus Christ by the Spirit. I like to use the image of a journey because when a person comes to faith in Christ, turning away from all other idols and distractions and turning towards Jesus in face-to-face relationship, God doesn’t suddenly make that person perfect. Rather, their perfection is hidden with Christ in God and the Spirit works it out in them as they walk through life and respond to Jesus’ work by the Spirit in their hearts and lives.
Growing up in Christ takes time. And it takes experiences in which we engage in relationships with other people and in circumstances in life in which we are challenged to live out the truth of who God is and who we are in him. We sometimes do a great job of responding to the work of the Spirit, but other times it seems as if we are the same as we always have been. Even to those closest to us it may look in some ways as if nothing has changed, while in others, we are not the same at all.
This is the work of the Spirit. He seems to have his own agenda as he goes to work in our lives. And the more I learn from God’s Word, the more I see it’s a whole lot more about interacting with our Abba and Jesus on the journey than it is about reaching some impossible ideal in this life. There is a life for us, eternal life, which involves an ongoing conversation and interaction as we go through our everyday circumstances. We learn to trust and we grow in faith as we walk with God in the Spirit.
As people of faith, we have the opportunity to share our relational journey with others. We can share with them how we struggle, what we have learned, and how we have encountered the living God in our life situations and difficulties. We can learn things about ourselves and God on this journey, and then share what we have learned with the significant people in our lives. And we can include them in our journey with the Triune God through prayer for them and with them.
At different times and at the perfect moment, God puts people in our lives with whom he wants us to share our journey of faith. He creates opportunities for us to share with these people what we have learned about Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit, and what we have learned about ourselves. He puts us in situations where the only answer we can give to another person is Jesus Christ, and so we respond to this reality by praying in his name for the blessing of God upon this person in the midst of their troubles or their joy.
And so we find ourselves interconnected in relationships of compassion, grace, and love. We grow close to each other, and our differences in personalities and preferences come into play, causing us to have to wrestle with and work them out with one another. What we are doing is growing up in Christ—growing up into the type of persons who can and will live together in eternity with one another in a oneness in which each is able to be distinctly themselves, and yet in which each is found to be equal in person and being with the others. This is a true reflection of the being of the God who is Abba, Jesus, and Holy Spirit.
Yes, this life is but the beginning of a relational journey which will last for all eternity. If we insist on living independently of others, or on preying on others, or on creating division and suffering in our relationships, we will find ourselves isolated, alone, and uncomfortable in a place where God’s goodness, love and grace reign. Missing those material goods and temporal values we clung to in this life, we will feel lost and devastated—something God never meant for us to have to experience.
It’s not easy to open ourselves up to God or others, but it’s what we were created to be—relational beings. When we make room for God and others in our lives, and we acknowledge our utter dependence upon God in each moment, living in the truth of who we are in Christ, we will find ourselves not only filled with God’s peace and joy, but also held by God in the midst of the struggles and griefs of this life. And we will want to tell others about what God has done and is doing in our lives.
This is the life God created for us in Christ and is calling us to share in. This is the eternal life which is ours and we can participate in even now when we turn to Jesus Christ. My prayer is that each of us will begin to see more clearly Abba’s face in the face of his Son Jesus by his Spirit, and that our hearts and lives will be transformed in the process. There is such joy, peace, and personal blessing available to each of us, and God wants us to experience them both now and forever, and so do I.
Thank you, Abba. You are always at work revealing yourself to each of us in your Son and by your Spirit. Thank you for transforming our hearts by faith as we turn to Jesus and surrender to your ways of living and being. May you finish what you have begun in us so we may spend both now and eternity growing in our relationship with you and all those you place in our lives, through Jesus our Lord, 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.” (Revelation 21:3-4 NASB)