By Linda Rex
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
By Linda Rex
October 13, 2019, Proper 23—On a rare occasion I wonder what the world would be like if every young lady had her very own fairy godmother. With the whisk of a wand would come a pumpkin carriage, a beautiful gown, and the promise of love and living happily ever after as princess in the kingdom of a charming prince. So often we expect God to be like a fairy godmother, waving his wand over our circumstances, making everything wonderful and perfect, just as we imagine it should be.
As a child I was not allowed to read or watch fairy tales because they might fill my head with dreams and fantasies and that was considered unhealthy. But I have always been drawn to them because, as I found out as an adult, at the root of so many of them is the story of God’s love for humanity.
Modern versions of these fairy tales often lose the simplicity of this story, of how a beautiful princess is held captive in some way by an evil person, and a handsome prince from a far away land comes and rescues her, carrying her home to his kingdom. More important than the magic wand or fairy godmother is the prince, who faces an impossible task of defeating a horrible, evil foe. This prince may even cross the line of death, only to be rescued by the kiss of true love. This is the wonderful story of the gospel—of what Jesus did for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Stories tell us a lot about ourselves, about how we deal with evil, sin, and death. They can act as mirrors, showing us what is going on in our hearts, or they can inspire us to transcend whatever sorrows or difficulties we may be facing at the moment. Sometimes we immerse ourselves in stories in an effort to escape the hardships of life. But stories are the language of humanity—from the beginning of time we have always used stories to teach, inspire, remember, and to create community.
It is instructive that the Spirit inspired the preservation of millennia of human stories in the Bible—of families, communities, nations, and even of our Savior. These stories remind us of our common humanity. When we read a story about what happened to someone a long time ago, at times we see ourselves in the midst of that story. We find ourselves faced with the same issues, the same family dynamics, the same pulls toward sin and selfishness as the people in these stories.
When we look at the lineage of Jesus, we find the names of people who are in these stories—people who made mistakes, whose families were a mess, and whose relationship with God was, from all appearances, questionable. These were real people, like you and me, who were sinners—whose only hope for eternal salvation lay in the grace and mercy of God himself.
Think about the story of Naaman, an Aramean commander of the army. He had leprosy from which he could not be cured—how he got it and how bad it was, we don’t know. What we do know is that an Israelite captive, a young girl who was his wife’s slave, lamented the fact that Naaman didn’t know Elisha, because the prophet could cure him.
Naaman went to his king with this information, and he sent him to the king of Israel with a letter and some gifts, and a request for healing. While the king of Israel was stressing out about all this, thinking he was facing war, Elisha sent a message to the king, telling him to send Naaman his direction and that he would take care of him. So, the king of Israel sent Naaman to Elisha’s house.
Naaman was looking for the guy with the magic wand, who would say some fancy incantations and he would be healed. But God had other things in mind—he wanted Naaman to be a part of the process of his healing. Elisha sent a message to Naaman—which was insulting enough in itself—and told him to dip seven times in the Jordan River and he would be clean. Thinking he had been insulted and humiliated by Elisha. the infuriated Naaman started to return home.
If Naaman had continued to focus on his own method of healing, on his expectations of God, and on his own way of doing things, he would have missed out on what God wanted to do for him. There is a great measure of humility and grace which goes with healing—it’s on God’s terms and in his timing and way. Our times are in his hands, and he writes our days in his book before any of them come to be. God isn’t a fairy godmother—he is a loving Lord who knows the end from the beginning and holds all things in his hands.
God allowed Naaman the freedom to accept or reject his intervention in his life and circumstances. The commander might have been able to order around the men under his authority, but he could not order around the Lord of the universe. A critical lesson which comes with healing of any kind is a deep understanding, acceptance of. and submission to the reality of our powerlessness. We are not the Lord—Jesus Christ is.
The healing God offers us so often supersedes the simple renewal of human flesh. We value this life so much that we forget that God sees all things through the lens of eternity and because of the finished work of Christ, death is not an obstruction or limit. It is merely a door to our real existence—of our glorified humanity dwelling in the presence of God forever. Death is not to be feared—it is to be seen as a defeated foe, conquered by our ever-living Lord.
Soon I will be attending the funeral of a woman who played a significant role in my life for many years. My mother-in-law Sue was a woman of faith who followed Jesus to the best of her ability and understanding. She took seriously the admonition to teach the young women how to care for their homes and families, and sought to share in her children’s and grandchildren’s lives and interests as much as she could. She loved the land and the animals on her farm—I can see her now in my mind, the barn cats and chickens following her as she carried the sloshing milk bucket back to the house.
The stories of our lives, of our loved ones as they join us on this journey, are important to remember and to share. We need to tell these stories so that others can see how God intervened and impacted our lives, and how Jesus rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of light. When God asks us to take a step toward our healing, we need to listen and to participate with him in our renewal, even if it doesn’t make sense, or we don’t understand his purpose in all of it. We never know who may find healing, or how, when we share our stories and allow others to participate in God’s work of healing in our lives.
Dearest Abba, thank you for including us in your story. Thank you, Jesus, for being our Prince of Peace, the One who came and rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and brought us into your kingdom of light. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for bringing Jesus’ resurrection life into reality in us and in our lives. Grant us the grace to admit our powerlessness and to surrender to your will and purposes in our lives. Give us the courage, boldness, and inspiration to tell your story and ours, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“He looked at them and said, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed of their leprosy. …And Jesus said to the man, ‘Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.’” Luke 17:14, 19 NLT
“But Elisha sent a messenger out to him with this message: ‘Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of your leprosy.’” 2 Kings 5:10 NLT
By Linda Rex
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
By Linda Rex
PROPER 9—This morning the thought came to me that perhaps we as human beings expend way too much energy trying to fix ourselves or even other people. It’s interesting how many books can be found under the self-help and psychology signs at a big bookstore. So many ways to straighten ourselves out!
Indeed, as Christians we can easily be tempted to turn our walk of faith into a self-help program or a means by which we make ourselves good enough that we will be fit for heaven. So often, people speak of their eternal future in question marks, wondering if they will qualify or overcome enough that God will let them in when the time comes.
And even when it comes to our relationship with God, we often believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we can only approach God in prayer if we are on his good side, having behaved properly and not having anything in our lives which might be cause for criticism or condemnation. So much of our lives may be lived by the rule book and living by the rules makes it easy for us to discern whether or not we are on God’s good side or bad side, so we know whether or not it is safe to approach him when we are in trouble. The only problem is, if we are honest with ourselves, no matter how hard we try to keep all the rules, we fail.
The struggle with guilt and shame is real. Some therapists and counselors teach methods of getting rid of guilt and shame as though it weren’t real, while others realize that these are symptoms of something deeper which needs healing and renewal. The truth is, God never meant for us to live oppressed by guilt or shame or any other negative, destructive emotion. God meant for us to live at peace with him and the other people in our lives, and at peace within ourselves. This is why he sent Jesus.
As the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus was full of grace and truth. In Jesus, we see God’s very Word written into our humanity—our way of being lived out in a tangible way here on earth, in a way which we could hear, see, touch, and experience. If we want rules to live by, we need only the Person of Jesus Christ, the law expressed in his very being written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In Christ, the truth of our being was accompanied by grace though, and was expressed fully as Jesus took our humanity with him through the crucifixion into the grave and out the other side in glory.
The problem we have with Jesus is often the reality that trusting in him and in his completed work means we lose control over the final outcome for ourselves and for others. In other words, it becomes a work of faith rather than a work of our flesh. Our acceptance by God is not won by our merit or our efforts, but solely by the Son of God who stood and stands in our place and on our behalf. We cannot boast about anything, as the apostle Paul points out, except “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).
You may remember the story of Naaman, the captain of the army of the king of Aram who was afflicted with leprosy. A captive Israelite girl told his wife he should go to the prophet in Samaria so he could be healed. Eventually Naaman made his way to Elisha’s house. The prophet didn’t talk with him face to face, but rather sent a messenger to tell him if he went and washed seven times in the Jordan River, he would be restored and made clean.
This made Naaman furious. He assumed Elisha would do some great miracle-working action or would speak some fancy words over him. He knew in his mind what it was going to take to get well. Feeling insulted, he reminded himself that his nation’s rivers were better than the Jordan River. It seems he thought his healing should be on his terms—he believed this Israelite prophet was insulting and demeaning him by asking this simple request of him. So he began to head for home.
Thankfully, he listened to his servants when they reminded him that if he had been asked to do something big, he would have done it—why not do this little thing? So Naaman humbled himself and went to the Jordan River and washed himself seven times. In the end he was healed, but only because of this simple act of trusting obedience.
So often we refuse God’s simple instruction to us—wash and be cleansed. We want to follow a difficult plan or program to make ourselves better. It is good to practice spiritual disciplines, but not to make ourselves right with God and not to fix ourselves or anyone else. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, fasting, and worship are ways in which we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. In other words, they are ways in which we simply come and are cleansed in Christ’s perfect work and participate in an ongoing relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit.
God calls us to renewal and says to you and me—wash and be clean. Christ’s blood and broken body are the place where we experience renewal and transformation, healing and freedom from guilt and shame. We can keep trying to free ourselves by our own efforts and in our own way, or we can simply be washed in Christ. In baptism we acknowledge that we died with Christ and rose with Christ—we are made new in him. The Spirit is at work in us bringing this reality to fruition within our beings.
Our efforts do not accomplish this. Rather, they are a participation in what Jesus has already done in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Healing, renewal, and transformation are a gift from God, as the Spirit makes the finished work of Jesus a reality in each of us individually. As we trust in Christ and respond to the indwelling Spirit of God—sowing to the Spirit, not to the flesh—we reap eternal life. We participate in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba in the Spirit, and find we are cleansed, healed, and made new. And the only thing left for us to do is to give our gratitude and praise to God.
Abba, we thank you for the gift of new life, of healing, renewal, and transformation in Jesus. Thank you for your Spirit, your presence and power at work in us, with us, and for us. We praise you, for you are worthy. Finish what you have begun, even as you have promised. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
“Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, ‘My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, “Wash, and be clean”?’” 2 Kings 5:13 NASB
By Linda Rex
3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER—As the years go by, I find myself reflecting on the journey I have been on with Jesus. The person I am today is profoundly different from the person I was as a young adult. I had lots of dreams back then, and I voiced many strong convictions about what I believed to be true about God, myself, and others, much of which I have since renounced as wrong or inaccurate.
Life seemed to be a lot less complicated back then. I believed that if I just did everything the way it should be done, my life would be blessed, I would be happy, and things would go along quite well without any difficulties or suffering. Whatever difficulty or suffering that might come would be because I sinned or because I was being persecuted for doing what was right. It seemed as though I was on God’s side so he had to be on mine, making sure everything went as it should.
I’m a little embarrassed to think about how naïve and unschooled I was, but it was merely the outgrowth of unhealthy theology and a protected yet legalistic childhood. I have, through the conditioning of God and everyday human existence, come to have a more rounded and mature view of things. There is indeed evil at work in this world, and evil affects anyone and everyone at some point. No matter who we are, we won’t escape failures, difficulties, struggles, and challenges.
A fundamental change in my life began when my view of who I believed God to be was challenged. I believed God was Father and Son, and the Spirit was their power or essence. As I grew in my understanding of who the Holy Spirit really is as the third Person of the Trinity—reading in the scriptures and believing all the examples of his personhood illustrated there and growing in my personal relationship with the Spirit through prayer and listening—my understanding of who Jesus and the Father are began to change as well.
Knowing the Father as our loving Abba and Jesus Christ as his Son the Messiah, the Word who came and took on our human flesh, dying our death, rising again, to bear our glorified humanity in the presence of the Father forever, is life-transforming. As the Spirit brought me nearer and deeper into the life of the Trinity, what I believed kept moving beyond just a religious creed into the realm of personal experience. The reality of Jesus Christ in me, with me, for me, began to take a clearer shape. Jesus was no longer some story character—he had revealed himself to me personally by the Holy Spirit. I began to hear God’s still small voice in my heart and mind, and I began to know and believe I am loved, forgiven, and accepted. The more I believed the truth about who Jesus was and why he came and the more I knew I belonged and was included in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Abba in the Spirit, the more my behavior began to change.
I was more than happy to do my part in obeying God—I had constantly been bombarded by the shoulds, oughts, and have-tos of the belief system I held and all it did was make me worse. The harder I tried, the more I found myself shackled by unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. I struggled often with depression and self-loathing. This obviously wasn’t God’s way of doing things. Eventually, the change I noticed within myself did not come about because I tried harder, but rather because I admitted I couldn’t do it and I needed Christ to do it in me and through me by his Holy Spirit. It happened when I was honest with others about my struggles and failures, and sought help. It happened when I was transparent about my failures, became fully known and yet loved, accepted and forgiven within a healthy spiritual community.
The worst thing about toxic or legalistic religious environments is that they do not allow people to be authentic and real and so find genuine healing and renewal. It seems that when people come together to form a church, they bring with them their masquerade gear and spend copious amounts of energy hiding from one another. In this type of environment, addictions and co-dependencies thrive. Healing and renewal are often limited or are complicated by unhealthy boundaries and toxic relationships.
It is much better to be in a safe spiritual community where each person is able to be genuine and transparent, and is allowed to grow up in Christ. Growing up in healthy ways requires the freedom to make mistakes without condemnation and with the support and encouragement of those who have previously traveled those same difficult paths. A healthy spiritual community allows for falling short without condemnation, but challenges brothers and sisters to grow up into the fullness of who they are in Christ.
Saul was not a bad person. He was a zealous God-fearing Jew. He meant to do the right thing, and he was trying to live life the way he believed God wanted him to. I don’t know why he was so adamant about imprisoning and executing the believers in Christ, but perhaps his zeal for God was also inspired by a need for the approval of his Jewish peers and a need to accomplish what no one else was doing quite as well. Whatever his reasoning, it seemed to be borne out of a heart seeking to please God.
Imagine how horrifying it must have been to realize that the One Saul had been trying to impress was actually the One he had been persecuting. His efforts to earn God’s love and approval, and the adulation and approval of his peers, was actually an action in opposition to God and in persecution of Jesus. Saul needed to know who Jesus Christ really was. He needed to have his image of God reformed into something which more perfectly apprehended the Triune God of love. As Saul sat in the darkness of blindness for a few days, he must have thought at least once—now what do I do? How can I possibly make amends for this?
What if Ananias had refused to listen to Jesus when the Lord told him to go lay hands on Saul so he could see again? What if he had stood in judgment of Saul and had condemned him, insisting he pay for his crimes against Ananias’ friends and fellow believers? But he didn’t. He humbly obeyed Jesus’ command and met Saul right where he was, offering him grace and love, and entrance into the body of Christ, the church.
Saul, whom we know today as the apostle Paul, never minced words when he spoke about his past and his failures in life. He was transparent and honest about the people he had harmed and the suffering he had incurred. Instead of being a reason for shame and guilt, God made his failures an essential part of his witness to the resurrection power of the risen Christ and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was effective often because people saw the profound reversal which had occurred in his life when he met Jesus Christ.
A church should be a spiritual community where people can be authentic and transparent, and safely transverse the changes necessary between spiritual infancy and the spiritual maturity of Christlikeness. This is a journey that takes time, and we all have ups and downs as we travel. We are bound together in Christ to offer one another both grace and truth—to enable one another to be challenged as well as upheld when things don’t go as we planned or hoped they should, or when we fall short of Christ.
The Spirit creates such a community as we respond to his work in our hearts and minds, and live and walk in him, tossing aside the old as unneeded scraps of clothing ready to be burned, and putting on Jesus Christ who is our life and the truth of our being. As we live out the truth of our real reversal in Jesus, the Spirit enables us to participate in bringing others to experience this transformation as well, creating a fellowship of care which reflects the inner life of the Triune God. Our spiritual community isn’t meant to be a closed group but rather a welcoming place where others may find healing and renewal as well.
Dear Abba, thank you that by your Spirit you bring together people to form spiritual communities where they can find healing and renewal, and share that gift with others who are broken and suffering. As believers, change our hearts and minds so that we begin to live together in ways which are transparent and authentic, and are safe for others to participate in and to come to know and grow up in Christ in a healthy way. We thank you for never ceasing to bring us to yourself through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ … and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ ” Acts 9:5-6, 20-21 NASB
By Linda Rex
PALM/PASSION SUNDAY—I remember years ago sitting in a church service listening to a pastor talk about conflict and how as couples, it was important to have good communication skills and be able to handling conflict in positive ways. I had learned over the years that the best way to deal with conflict was to avoid it altogether. Now, granted, approaching conflict through avoidance does seem temporarily to create a more peaceful atmosphere in the home. The reality is, though, this method of dealing with conflict exacts a pretty steep price in the end.
When we don’t engage issues as they come up between us and the significant people in our lives, we really don’t create peace. What we create is a mound of unresolved issues that may erupt later as a destructive volcano when stressful events occur in our lives. Avoidance can actually prevent the true resolution of conflict. Handling conflict in healthy ways may in fact increase intimacy and bring healing to the relationship—we may miss out on opportunities to deepen our relationship with another by avoiding conflict.
Yes, we are told “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18 NASB). In the context of this passage, though, we are told not to give back to others the evil they have done to us and we are not to exact revenge on them for the harm they have done us. The point Paul was making, I believe, was that we respond to their evil with good—this is the best way to treat someone who is mistreating you.
This is nigh to impossible for us as humans to do in our own strength. It is definitely counter-intuitive and rubs against the grain of our fallen humanity. If we are honest with ourselves, our response to conflict with another person is make sure our position is defended, our opinion protected and affirmed, and that the other person understands and accepts that we are right and they are very wrong. The way we often do conflict when driven by our flesh involves opposition, condemnation or criticism, and unforgiveness. And when we feel unable to defend our position, we may choose to avoid engaging altogether.
During Lent, we are walking the journey with Jesus toward death and resurrection. What might be helpful is to remember that this journey began long before this cosmos was ever created. The Word of God could have said to Abba, “I really don’t want to have to deal with these humans. I know what they are like. They’re not going to live in relationship with us like they were created to—all they will want to do is go their own way and live in opposition to us. We’ll have conflict all the time.” And he would have been right.
But the Word of God did not avoid conflict by not coming to be with us. Rather he expressed a divine humility in embracing our humanity and taking it upon himself. He did not reject our weaknesses or failures to love, but engaged them fully, face-to-face with us in our human flesh. For him, this conflict would serve a purpose—to restore us to the relationship with God we were created for and to remake our humanity into what it was created to be, enabling us to truly reflect the image of God.
This Sunday we are reminded both of the events of Palm Sunday and those of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, we see Jesus intentionally walking towards Jerusalem and the events which would transpire there. In the gospel accounts, we hear Jesus warning his disciples of what he was facing—his death and resurrection. Even though all his disciples didn’t fully realize what he was saying, they believed what Jesus was doing as he entered Jerusalem that day was significant enough that they participated in the celebration of hosannas and laying down palm branches.
Symbolically, we see Jesus being treated as a triumphant deliverer. The Jewish leaders wanted the hosannas silenced. But Jesus acknowledged this was his day—this was his time. Creation knew its Maker and would honor him even if these people did not.
Jesus wasn’t interested in being acknowledged as a hero, though. He knew the path he walked was a path of conflict and betrayal. Even the one who promised he would never walk away or deny him did. And the one he knew would betray him did so, offering him up to the Jews for a few coins. Jesus did not try to defend himself, but allowed himself to be misunderstood, misrepresented and humiliated. How many of us are willing to engage in a conflict with this measure of self-effacing humility?
The journey of Holy Week takes us from triumph to ignominy. In engaging humanity on its own ground, Jesus experienced crucifixion and death. He was willing to go to these lengths in order for him and his Father in the Spirit to be reconciled with humanity once and for all. What price are we willing to pay in order to make things right in our relationships with others?
Needless to say, it has been impressed on my heart once again that there is no place for avoidance in our significant relationships. Walking in the Spirit rather than in the flesh means walking in the reality of Jesus’ complete offering of himself in spite of what he knew we would do to him on the cross.
It also means that there will be times when on our side, there is no conflict—we are fully accepting, forgiving, and loving toward the other. These can be times where all the other wants to do is live in opposition to us, pouring out on us whatever venom or destruction they can muster up. This is when we don’t avoid the conflict, but rather respond as Jesus did, in offering love and grace—God’s goodness—in place of the evil being offered us. We don’t act in our flesh and take revenge, but walk in the Spirit and with healthy boundaries in place we offer God’s grace and love. The ground of Jesus’ death and resurrection is where we take our stand, and in Christ by the Spirit we find the power and heart to love and serve the one who opposes us.
Conflict then becomes not a ground for hostility or relational destruction, but a sacred offering of openness to the power of the Spirit to deepen and heal the relationship. We don’t need to fear conflict, for in Christ it becomes a way in which Jesus’ can work to bind us together with God and with one another in deeper and healthier ways. The beauty of Jesus’ wilderness journey is that it ends up in an eternal loving relationship of God and humanity bound together forever, not at conflict with one another but in perfect unity. The humility of the cross ends in glory!
Dear Jesus, thank you that you did not refuse to engage us in face-to-face conflict but chose to embrace conflict as a means by which we would be forever united with you and Abba in the Spirit. Thank you, Abba, for participating with Jesus in this mighty work of redemption and renewal. And thank you, Holy Spirit, for working into our being and our relationships that grace and love which Jesus lived out in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Amen.
“Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:8 NASB
“I gave My back to those who strike Me, / And My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; / I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting. For the Lord GOD helps Me, / Therefore, I am not disgraced; / Therefore, I have set My face like flint, / And I know that I will not be ashamed. He who vindicates Me is near; / Who will contend with Me? / Let us stand up to each other; / Who has a case against Me? / Let him draw near to Me. Behold, the Lord GOD helps Me; / Who is he who condemns Me? / Behold, they will all wear out like a garment; / The moth will eat them.” Isaiah 50:6-9 NASB
By Linda Rex
For whatever reason, probably mostly due to the family dynamics and church legalism I grew up in, I struggled for years with a deep sense of being unwanted and unloved. My personal history has been filled with the struggle to fill these empty places—as many others around me have struggled as well. This journey often led me into unhealthy relationships or situations, though I will be the first to admit that God graciously kept me safe so many times when I deserved painful consequences for my choices.
I was born to two parents who cared deeply about God and wanted to live their lives according to what they understood God required of them. They were careful about what they ate, believing they needed to keep the old covenant commands regarding clean and unclean meats, and that as caregivers for the temple of the Spirit, their bodies, they needed to only eat the healthiest, organic foods and drink the cleanest water. Part of this concern about health led them to choosing to give birth to me at home with the assistance of a midwife.
The facts of my birth, though, were that I was a breech birth—a long and difficult process that the doctor had to help with. Mom really struggled and was in grave danger during the process. I was eventually born, with the umbilical cord rapped around my neck and my body blue from lack of oxygen. My dad told me years later that I was laid aside so they could tend to my mom—I was not expected to live.
I think sometimes we live our lives as though we are babies God has tossed aside and given up on. We somehow believe God has his attention elsewhere, with more important things to tend to than us. We impute to God some indifference or coldness which is not in his heart at all.
In fact, our view of God and ourselves very often reflects the important relationships in our lives. If our parents were indifferent or cold, we may believe God is indifferent and cold. If our parents were controlling and had unreasonable expectations for us, we may believe God expects more from us that we could ever give, so why even try? In our refusal to be controlled, we may give ourselves over to substances and/or relationships which eventually begin to control us.
Our experiences as children and teens impact us in greater ways than we often realize. The ridicule we experience about our clothes or poverty may drive for years our determination to never be considered less than ever again, and so we become successful, well-to-do adults. The loneliness we felt as an isolated, unloved child may drive us to be a social butterfly who never wishes to be alone or without a partner—even though many of our relationships may be shallow and transient, at least we’re not abandoned or isolated.
What we believe to be true about ourselves often works at such a deep level within our soul that unless we take the time and make the effort to examine these things, our brokenness can become something which sabotages or undermines whatever good may be happening in our lives. In Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, the authors explain how these wounds from the past may drive us to be successful and effective adults, but if they do not find healing within the reality of our new life in Jesus Christ, they will trip us up or cause us to have a major failure later in life. (1)
Many leaders today, both secular and Christian, are reaping the consequences of not dealing with the truth of their brokenness and need for redemption. We need to accept the reality that we are broken people with flaws and wounds. We are utterly dependent upon Jesus to redeem, restore, and renew us. Every moment of every day, we need his transforming power at work in us and in our lives. We need to not be afraid to do the hard work of looking inside and allowing ourselves to be the needy, hurting, and broken people we really are, because God loves us and has already redeemed and forgiven us.
Remember that baby, laid aside so the doctor could attend my mom? A few years ago, I had a dream that was so incredibly vivid I have been unable to forget it. In the dream, the baby I was laid there alone and forgotten. But all at once, I saw this man there. He was loving, kind, and compassionate, like a heavenly Father or a gentle Savior. He walked over to the abandoned, forsaken baby, and picked it up and held it. Broken, but beloved. Set aside, but chosen. Given up on, but believed in and held.
In spite of what we may believe about ourselves, and in spite of what others may believe about us or say about us, the truth is, we are loved. We are chosen. We are held. Broken we may be—but God determined before we were even born that we were his and would be his forever. And he never breaks his promises, for he is a faithful, loving Abba, a tender-hearted Dad, a loving Father. You are his, and he is yours. Both now and forever.
Thank you, Abba, that even though we may believe we are forgotten, forsaken, and unloved, we are in reality remembered, held, and beloved. Remind us again, Holy Spirit, of who we are and that we share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with our heavenly Father. Give us courage to face our brokenness and to bring it to you, Abba, that we may be healed, restored, and renewed, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Yes, you have been with me from birth; from my mother’s womb you have cared for me. No wonder I am always praising you!” Psalm 71:6
(1) McIntosh, Gary L. and Rima, Sr., Samuel D., Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: The Paradox of Personal Dysfunction. Grand Rapids, MI (Baker Books, 1997).