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Reaching for Joy

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Advent: JOY
By Linda Rex

This time of year can really be difficult for some people. It seems that the songs we listen to, the Christmas movies we watch and the stories that are told tell about all this lovely holiday joy we should have. And yet, so many of us struggle just to put one foot in front of the other and make it through another day.

I don’t think God expects us to walk around all day, every day, with a big smile on our face. That’s actually kind of creepy, you know. Because it’s not real. God gives us our humanity back renewed in Christ and it’s a humanity that feels things deeply, that sorrows and grieves as much as it laughs and sings for joy.

I read a devotional this morning from New Life Ministries that reminded me the psalms in the Bible are filled with expressions of the whole spectrum of our human existence. There isn’t an emotion there that Christ didn’t feel. It is good to read them and experience God’s heart joining with our heart within the full expression of our humanity.

The psalms tell us that the trees and the animals and all creation sing for joy in praise to God. Over and over we are called to rejoice even in times of persecution and difficult circumstances. If it was left up to us to find the joy to do this, we couldn’t do it. Because, humanly, we tend to allow our situations and struggles to define our emotions rather than the other way around.

But the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus counted his sufferings—the cross and its shame—as joy. He was able to do so because he looked beyond them to the glory that was to come, not just for him, but for us as well. He went first so that we could follow.

We find our joy in Christ. He lives forever in the divine joy he shares with the Father in the Spirit. He calls us to look beyond this life to the life he purchased for us and gave us in the Holy Spirit. He lives in us today and gives us his joy. He gives us the eyes to see beyond our present circumstances into the kingdom of God he brought in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

This is why the apostle Paul repeatedly reminded people to keep their eyes on things above, not on earthly things (Col. 3:1-4). We need to keep a spiritual vision of there being so much more to life than this everyday human existence we currently have. Our joy comes from knowing this is not all there is to life. There is somethings very transcendent going on and we get to be a part of it right now.

One of my favorite hymns of joy came to mind this morning. It is a classical piece that causes my heart to overflow with joy as it is sung. It reminds us that our joy comes from beyond us and overflows in our hearts from Christ in the Spirit. It is my prayer for you this holiday season, that you experience God’s divine joy in a profound way through Jesus and by his Spirit. Amen.

Hymn to Joy
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!

All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.

Mortals, join the happy chorus, which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us, brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us Sunward in the triumph song of life.
Henry J. van Dyke, 1907
Sung to “Hymn to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1–2 NASB

Leaving Behind the Ignorance of Prejudice

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Serene lake
Serene lake

by Linda Rex

Yesterday I was watching with interest the speech given by Pope Francis to Congress. I was impressed by his finesse in taking the stories of four Americans and drawing from them positive principles by which our leaders and our people could move forward into the uncertain future.

As he was speaking, someone said to me, “Well, there’s our enemy.” It took me aback for a moment, but then I remembered how for centuries some Protestants have seen the pope and the Roman Catholic church as being exactly that—as being the anti-Christ spoken about in the Bible. Of course, this requires a misinterpretation of Scripture, but it has been assumed to be true by many and is still believed to be so by some today.

I’m a little ashamed to say today that I used to be one of those people who believed the pope and the Roman Catholic Church were the enemy of all that is truly Christian. This was born out of ignorance and false teaching I had adopted as a child. But God was not content to leave me in my ignorance.

One of the first things he did was to place me in a relationship in high school where I grew to know and respect a teen who was the daughter of Polish immigrants. She had attended Catholic school in her youth and was a devout believer. She had a crucifix on the door to her room and she would cross herself every time she passed it to go in and out. I saw a devotion to Christ that was different from mine but equally, or perhaps even more, genuine. Although I had other friends in school who were Catholic, she left an impression on me that was not easily forgotten.

As time passed, I had a family member who married someone who was Catholic. I still remember the beautiful ceremony in her church. I could feel the presence and power of God there in a way that amazed me. The song that invited the believers to communion with Christ was inspiring and captured my heart. God was slowly and surely destroying the arrogance in me that kept me believing my faith was superior to and more real than these Catholic believers.

In the years since then, God placed me in the position of coming to know more and more people of the Catholic faith. Many of them were devout, and some were actively pursuing a relationship with Jesus Christ. Sure, there were an equal number who were merely nominal Christians, whose faith was just something they adopted as part of their family heritage. But what God did over the years was to bring me to a repentance, a change in my mind and heart and in my beliefs, about the Roman Catholic Church and its followers.

The way God changed my mind and heart was by placing me in relationships with people in which I was forced to reevaluate what I believed and why I believed it. I could have been stubborn and refused to acknowledge and repent of my prejudice. But my personal integrity would not allow me to do that. The truth was—I was wrong—and I needed to admit it and change accordingly.

I have found as time has gone by that God keeps me in a continual state of needing to reevaluate, repent and change when it comes to what I believe about certain people, their beliefs and cultures.

Technology is making our world smaller by bringing together people and cultures that would probably otherwise never interact. We are being forced to build relationships with people of all faiths and political, economic backgrounds. We are being forced to reevaluate what we believe about them and how we should interact with them.

This is actually a good thing. Because one day, in our future, lies a time when all peoples of all nations and all cultures will be joined together in a world that has no political, religious, cultural boundaries. In this place, what will matter most will not be what clothes we wear, how much money we make, or what kind of foods we prefer to eat. Rather what will really matter will be our relationships with one another and with God. What will really count is how well we love and care for one another.

This is why Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness…” To have these heavenly values is more important than seeking the earthly values that are transitory and passing. We look beyond the human designations that separate us into the heavenly qualities that unite us. We are all one in Jesus Christ—he is our humanity—our unity, our equality, our diversity. He joins us together in such a way that all these other things we count as important become truly insignificant in the long run.

Our challenge is to remain in an attitude of a willingness to see and admit to our prejudices, and to consciously make an effort to change when we see we are wrong. When we respond to the work of the Holy Spirit as he brings us together with others we may feel uncomfortable with, we will find an amazing harmony and healing that can only be explained as divine.

God wants his children to be joined together with him in Christ, and when we respond to that, miracles happen in our relationships. We experience his divine life and love in a multitude of ways as we yield to the Spirit’s work to bind us all together as one in Christ. May we always respond in faithful obedience to him.

Thank you, God, for the amazing ways you bring healing and restoration in our broken relationships. Grant each of us the heart and mind to repent of our prejudices and to open ourselves to making room for others in the divine fellowship. We have so far to go! May we always turn to you for the love and grace we need so that we may love and forgive others. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33 NASB