By Linda Rex
Have you ever had that experience where you were praying about something, asking God to move in some situation, and when things actually began to improve, you were still in the “I have to do something to fix this” mode? It reminds me of the story of Peter being released by the angels from prison, going to find the brethren who were praying for him, but when he knocked no one would believe it was him knocking on the door.
I have no doubt that we want God to intervene and to answer our prayers. But do we really expect him to? Do we really believe God exists and that he wants to and will intervene in our lives and circumstances?
In this culture which is so heavily wrapped around science and proving things according to empirical data, I think it is interesting that we even have scientific studies that prove that praying for the sick actually works. But why do scientific studies of such a thing? Why do we have to prove that prayer works and is helpful?
I wonder if there is a deep inner longing in each of us to experience in a real way something outside of our human existence, something beyond ourselves that is more than we could ever be and that is lovingly inclined towards us and willing to help us when we are in need. And yet if there is such a Being or Force, we most certainly don’t want them to interfere with us or to tell us what to do. We want all the benefits of such a relationship, but none of the responsibilities.
We want to have help when we need it, to have success and good health and all of the glitz and glamour of a blessed life, but we surely don’t want anyone to dictate to us how to go about obtaining it or living it. We like to do life on our own, to deal with our problems our own way, and then to blame God or karma when things don’t turn out like we expect.
And prayer seems to be that guilt thing that we think maybe we ought to do more of now and again. We know prayer would be good to do when we’re in crisis and we don’t know where else to turn. But what do we know and believe about the God who we are praying to? Do we really believe he cares and that he will give us an answer? Or are we essentially atheists or humanists in our prayer life?
There is something fundamentally wrong here, and I believe it has to do with what we believe about God. First off, it is wonderful if we can get it through our minds and hearts that God is real and that God loves us. Period. He did, does and will love us unconditionally, no matter where, when, how we find ourselves—even in the midst of the stupid stuff we do.
And God gives us grace—total, unconditional forgiveness. But in the midst of that forgiveness and acceptance is the unspoken reality that we are in need of that forgiveness. Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics often reminds his readers that inherent in our receiving forgiveness is the acknowledgement of our need for it. God offers through receiving his gift of grace the opportunity to experience a change of mind and heart. This is called repentance and faith.
One of the ways we need to experience repentance and faith in is in this area of our view of God so we see him as a loving, merciful Lord who answers our requests for help and succor. We need to come to see God as a Person who cares about every facet of our life and who is ready and willing to help.
But along with that understanding of who God is needs to come an appreciation and respect for the right he has as a living Lord to personify for us who we are to be as human beings. The lives we live ought to reflect the God he is. How we think, behave and speak ought to correspond directly to the thinking, behavior and speech of Jesus Christ as it is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Scriptures. We need to acknowledge that sometimes the mess we are in is our fault and we need to change.
Don’t get me wrong. God’s not hovering over us waiting for some reason to slap us silly since he knows we’re going to mess up. No. He loves us, and he hates anything that will mess up our understanding and experience of that love. He hates anything that will mar the beauty of his image in us. He longs for us to fully experience the love, joy and peace of a life like his that is whole, blessed and healthy.
He wants us to see him for who he really is and to live accordingly. And prayer becomes a part of that reality in our lives. Because we know him as a God who loves and forgives us, we want to know him better. Knowing him better means we begin to see things about ourselves that need changed. So we go back to him, secure in his forgiveness and love. And our relationship with God grows deeper as we are continually drawn to deeper levels of repentance and faith.
Drawing closer to God means we see more areas of our being and life that do not reflect his glory. So we surrender to God in those areas rather than resisting him. Prayer then is just a natural part of our relationship with God—he shares himself with us, we share ourselves with him, he responds, we respond—throughout our lives it goes on. But we need to be careful not to allow any part of our being or life to be a place where God is not allowed to have a say in how we think, speak or live.
I’m not talking about rules. I’m talking about a real relationship with someone who wants to do more for us than we could ever think of or ask him for. I mean being so close to God in our hearts and minds that we don’t want to wound him in anyway by the things we think, say and do. We seek only to give full expression of God’s glory in and through us in every way possible.
This is tough and it is counter-cultural. It goes against our natural human inclinations and it definitely stands in opposition to all that is dark and evil and opposes the will and purposes of God.
But God stands with us and promises us that he will never leave us or forsake us. He is committed to our becoming all we were meant to be as his adopted children in Christ and by his Spirit. And he won’t quit until he is done. We can count on that.
Holy God, please forgive us our wrong-headed views and thoughts of you. Grant us the ability to see you with new eyes and hearts. Open up to us a new understanding of who you are and how your heart toward us is only good and loving. Grant us repentance and faith, through Jesus Christ and in your Spirit. Amen.
“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20–21
By Linda Rex
It’s been interesting to watch companies alter their advertising strategies to accommodate public concerns about body image and eating disorders. It’s good to see positive changes about these things. Helping young people have a healthy view of themselves as they grow up, and treating everyone, no matter their appearance, with respect and dignity is a worthy cause.
But there is another change I’d like to see in our media and advertising strategies. Unfortunately, sex sells, and so often it is used to sell even the most mundane products. Sometimes I’m appalled at how often the word “love” is used to refer to having sex with someone. Selling sex and calling it love seems to be the media strategy of the day.
As I sit impatiently through another lengthy ad about some pharmaceutical product, I am appalled by our addiction to pleasure filled, pain-free, hedonistic living. It seems like we are in general as a culture addicted to sex for its own sake. Sex is no longer experienced as a sacred event in which two people in the real presence of God share a deep intimacy unique to themselves alone within a covenanted relationship.
This isn’t a condemnation of sex outside of marriage. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of a lack of knowledge and discernment about love, what it is and what it is not. It is an expression of my grief that we are missing out on something beautiful, precious and divine. It is a realization that we are not living in the truth of who we are and who we were meant to reflect in our love and sexual relationships.
How we treat sex and sexual relationships says a lot about us as human beings. So does how we view love and love relationships.
There is a substantial brokenness at the heart of each one of us that causes us to run from a deep, committed relationship with God. And in running from intimacy with God, we also run from intimacy with one another.
We are happy to experience physical intimacy, because for a while it feels a lot like real intimacy. But real intimacy demands so much more from us—vulnerability, commitment, sacrifice, humility, submission, surrender—all the things we’d prefer to have to live without. We are happy to live with the counterfeit because the real is so demanding. And when a real relationship fractures or ends in death, the pain is excruciating. And we don’t want to deal with the pain.
Living in intimacy with God goes right along with this. We can be content with a superficial relationship with God—he makes no demands, we’re free to set our own limits. Or we can go deeper—surrendering all of ourselves, making ourselves fully vulnerable to God and others, sacrificing for his sake, living in commitment to him and his will in full submission to him—this is a real and deep relationship of love. But that means that God calls the shots in everything, including our sex and love life.
We can compartmentalize our relationship with God. We’ll be at church on Sunday or watch the evangelist on TV, send in a few bucks here and there for a worthy cause—and we’ve done what God expects, we think. Then we can go on about the rest of our life anyway we want. And God allows us to do that.
But this is so much like having a casual, physical relationship with someone and then walking away whenever we decide we’re done. We can have an occasional feel-good relationship with God, say that we love him, and then go on with our lives. We can dismiss him as someone we use and discard as the situation requires.
God meant for all of life, all that we are, to be a part of our relationship with him. That includes love and sex. As King David wrote in Psalm 139, God is present at all times in the Spirit. There is no part of our lives that is lived outside of God’s presence and power. And as Jesus bears our human flesh in the presence of the Father, all of our humanity is deeply and completely open to and known by God.
Love and sex are meant to be outward- and upward-focused rather than inward-focused. There is a sacredness to our relationships and our sexuality that precludes casual expression. Our bodies, souls and spirits, as well as those of others around us, are held as precious, to be respected, cherished and honored, not just used for self-fulfillment or self-indulgence. Love is something so much deeper than a casual sexual encounter—it is an expression of the divine.
In giving us his Son Jesus, God calls each of us to go deeper with him in a relationship of love—to love him with all that we are. And he calls each of us to love one another in the same self-sacrificing way Jesus demonstrated for us as he lived, died and rose again as a human being. We called out of darkness into God’s light, to take the path of transparency, integrity, sincerity and purity.
Taking this path in no way diminishes the pleasure and beauty of sex or love, but rather it concentrates it, giving it an intensity, freedom and power it would not otherwise have. And because sex and love are expressed by human beings in broken ways, we should accept that they are only glimpses of the divine. They were never meant to be the ultimate experience in themselves, but to create in us a thirst for something beyond this life that only God can satisfy.
I hope and pray that at some point, we as human beings, made in God’s image, born to be in relationship with God and one another, will draw the line and stop allowing ourselves to be manipulated, used and controlled via our sexuality. And when someone talks about love, it will not just be about sex, but will also be about commitment, compassion, service, giving, sharing, understanding and sacrifice. May God hasten that day!
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Holy Father, forgive us for not understanding or appreciating the precious gifts of love and sex you have given us as human beings. Open our eyes to see that in Jesus and through your Spirit we live moment by moment in your presence, that all of our life is taken up in you, including our sexuality. Grant us the grace to live in true intimacy with you and one another as you intended from the beginning. Through Jesus our Lord, and in your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:9–11 NASB
by Linda Rex
Often we read the sermons of Jesus in which he advocates doing good to our enemies rather than giving them what they deserve (Matt. 5:39). Our natural response may be to say how ridiculous it is to even think of trying to do this in real life. What we experience in the normal course of events is most often the exact opposite.
A story I came across the other day in the Old Testament popped out at me, because it actually illustrated this specific principle at work. Of course, it was many millenia ago, and involved two kings who were at war with one another, and a prophet who was diligently doing the will of God.
The story goes like this. The nation of Aram was at war with the nation of Israel. Every time the king of Aram went to attack the nation of Israel, the prophet Elisha would warn the king of Israel about the ambush. This kept the Israelites safe from attack.
After a while, the king of Aram got ticked off, and began searching for a traitor among his officers. Apparently their military intelligence was working properly this time, because one of the officers told him about the prophet Elisha and what he was doing to inform the king of Israel about their plans of attack.
So early the next morning, Elisha’s servant woke up to find his beloved city of Dothan surrounded by the Aramean army with its soldiers, horses and chariots. Needless to say, he was terrified, and anxiously asked Elisha what they should do.
Elisha first asked God to give his servant an assurance of his presence in the midst of this terrifying situation. So God enabled Elisha’s servant to see that God’s army with its horses and chariots covered the hills around the city. They were perfectly safe in the midst of this danger.
Then Elisha asked God to cause the soldiers of Aram to be blinded so they couldn’t see where they were or where they would be going. Then he proceeded to tell the commander that he would lead them to the city and person they were looking for. And off they went to Israel’s capital city of Samaria.
There in the middle of Samaria with the Israelite army surrounding them, Elisha asked God to give the Arameans back their sight. Now they saw that they were totally at the mercy of the Israelites, their enemies! At that point the king of Israel asked if he should kill them.
How simple it would have been to kill all of those enemy soldiers! They had no hope of escaping, and they were guilty of harassing the Israelites with their constant attacks. It certainly would have been just, if looked at from that point of view.
But Elisha pulled out the “do good to your enemies” principle and told the king of Israel he should give them food and water and send them back to their master. So the king held a great feast, made sure they were all well supplied and then sent them home.
What’s interesting is the small statement at the end of this story—the soldiers from Aram quit raiding the Israelite territory. Now if the king of Israel had gone ahead and killed all those soldiers from Aram, it would have probably been the “just” thing to do, but it would have only escalated the tension between the two countries. It would have initiated real war. But in doing good to their enemies, the Israelites, guided by God through Elisha the prophet, invoked the power of grace and service. And hearts were changed, at least, for the time being. So how is it possible to really do this in real life?
First, we see that Elisha was living in a relationship with God in which he was in tune with God’s heart and mind, and he was trusting in God’s love, grace and protection. He was living in obedience to God, doing as God asked, even when it was difficult or dangerous.
Secondly, we need to see beyond the physical into the realm of God’s kingdom life. There is a spiritual reality that exists beyond our humanity. We participate in the spiritual realm through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. God is with us, in us and for us. We have no reason to be afraid.
Thirdly, we need to follow God’s lead, and allow him to take us wherever he wishes us to go. He will give us the ability to see what’s really going on when the time is right. He will help us to know what to do to best resolve the situation without revenge or violence.
Lastly, we need to choose grace and service rather than revenge or cold justice. Looking at the situation through the eyes of Christ, we can ask, what would be the most gracious, hospitable thing to do? How can I offer this person God’s love in the midst of this?
The reality is that even our efforts to do good in response to evil may end in suffering, loss and abuse. Christ called us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. There is a need for caution, wisdom, and seeking counsel and help from others in the midst of dangerous or potentially harmful circumstances. But at the same time we can apply God’s principle of grace and service in the midst of it all, and experience God’s blessings as a result.
Father, thank you that you are faithful in the midst of difficult and dangerous circumstances. Grant us the heart, wisdom and strength to do good to others, no matter their response to us. Grant us courage, faith, and obedience so we will follow you wherever you lead. Show us how best to love others with Christ’s love through the Spirit in the midst of adversity. In Jesus’ name, by your precious Spirit. Amen.
“But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:20–21 NASB
(You can find the story in 2 Kings 6:8-23.)
by Linda Rex
If I were to summarize the programs currently available on my cable television, I would say that the majority have something to do with either crime and murder investigation, magic and the supernatural, or broken and confused relationships of some kind. If I work at it, I can occasionally find something uplifting and educational, but it seems that any more, movies rarely have community at their core.
Yesterday I was reading an article posted by a family member which showed that tests on mice indicate that the best antidote for drug addiction is healthy relationships with family and community, and meaningful things to do with one’s life. (See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html) This did not come as a surprise to me, since I’ve been told in the past as a parent that the best way to keep my kids off of drugs is to build a strong, loving relationship with them. There is something powerful and significant about relationships based on love and grace.
I believe that society’s current obsession with materialist consumerism, as James Torrance calls it, contributes to the prevalence of addictions in just about every form imaginable. We are preoccupied with taking care of our needs, wants and desires. If we are barely scraping by financially, we can begin to see the world through the lens of how we are going to take care of our needs—food on the table, gas for the car, paying our growing medical bills. Even if we are comfortable financially, we may often still struggle, because we see the world through the lens of desire, passion and loneliness.
In either situation, our focus is inward, toward ourselves. We are preoccupied with taking care of what we believe needs to be taken care of. Taking care of our needs is indeed an important thing to do, but the way we go about meeting those needs is significant. Too many people are trying to meet the needs of their body, soul and spirit on their own, without any faith, hope or love in their lives. So many of us are living as isolated human beings, without meaningful, loving relationships with others.
I saw this many times when I served doing intake at Greenhouse Ministries. When a person or family came in with catastrophic circumstances in their life, they were often at a place of dire need. Those who had some form of relational support, especially those who had a personal relationship with God and with a community of faith, would approach their circumstances with serious optimism and hope. They were just looking for a little help to get over the hump.
Others who had none of these things were often overcome by despair, desperation and could only think about getting their next meal or a place to stay. When asked about a relationship with God, they thought of it only in terms of making it to church, which for many of them would have been problematic, seeing that they probably would not have been warmly welcomed even if they had shown up at church on Sunday. It’s not hard to see how many medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol so that they don’t have to deal with the pain of loss, loneliness and despair.
I believe God is calling the church today to open up our hearts and doors to people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and cultures. He is calling us all back into loving, intimate relationships with him and with others—he’s calling us into Christian community. He never meant for any of us to go through the struggles of life alone.
When we seek first to build authentic, wholesome relationships with others that are centered around a common love and devotion to the God who made us and sent us his Son Jesus Christ and his Spirit of love, we will find that all the rest will fall into place in new ways.
The early church had many of the same struggles with poverty and need that we do today, and they met those needs through sharing and caring. It was that loving community which bore witness to the love and care of God for each and every one of us which he demonstrated in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. This is what is meant by the kingdom of God or universal church. It is a community of faith, hope and love centered in Jesus Christ.
We, as followers of Jesus Christ, have a lot of repenting to do, and a lot of growing as well. It is God’s love and grace given in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit which has been so transformational for us. We dare not try to keep it to ourselves, but rather must begin to open it wide to the world around us which is in such desperate longing for faith, hope and love expressed through relationships. To feed the hungry, visit the lonely and imprisoned—this is more than just meeting physical needs—it is meeting the deep hunger of the human heart for relationship with God and with others that we were created for. It is being truly human.
Thank you, Father, that you have given yourself to us in Jesus and through the Spirit, opening yourself up to us in a relationship of love and grace. Impart to us your heart of faith, hope and love, and pour out from us into others your Spirit so that they may join together with us in Christian community. Bind us together in love and grace. Through Jesus, our Lord and in your Spirit. Amen.
“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:31–33 NASB
by Linda Rex
I was mulling over the Christmas tradition of gift giving and a question came to my mind as to the difference between getting a gift and receiving a gift. Are these two acts the same? Are these expressions synonymous?
It seems that the whole Santa tradition here in America has become more and more a commercial enterprise rather than the fairy tale it started out as. When I hear people talk about Christmas for their kids I hear a lot of anxiety about being able to get the presents their children want and whether or not they will be in hock for months on end because of what they spent on those presents. Some people who are not financially savvy will spend their rent money or bill money on presents for their kids just because they want them to have Christmas (Nevermind that their electricity is turned off for the next three months of winter!).
As a child sits on the mall Santa’s knees the jolly fellow in red and white will ask him or her what the child wants for Christmas. If the child is not too shy, he will receive a litany of hopeful expectations of presents. Whether or not the child will receive those presents, unfortunately (Santa unbeliever that I am) will depend pretty much on the parents’ budget and the thoughtfulness of grandparents and others. The child really doesn’t have a whole lot of control over what is going to show up in his stocking or under the Christmas tree.
Sometimes I think the whole process would be a lot healthier and happier if children and adults alike not only understood the nativity and the gift of the Christ child, but also understood that there is a difference between getting what we want and receiving what is given.
In getting what we want, we are an essential part of the process. We get to decide what we want. We get to decide what’s important to us and what matters most to us. We get to make a list of all the things we think are essential to our life and happiness.
In receiving, we really are not a part of the process at all except in that we reach out and receive what is given. We don’t really have a say in what we receive—we just receive it and make it ours. It becomes essential to us when we receive it in gratitude and put it to use.
In M. Craig Barnes book “Sacred Thirst”, the author tells about the Asian custom of gift giving and receiving that is always done with two hands. He explains that there is a moment in this act of giving when both the giver and the receiver share the gift. He draws upon this image as he reminds us of “the two hands of God”, the incarnate Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. In giving us Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God gives us himself. All we are asked to do is to receive with open hands the gift that was and is given.
To receive God through Jesus and in the Spirit means that we need to come with empty hands. We need to shred our Christmas wish list of expectations and receive what God has given with humble thankfulness for God’s grace and generosity. We need to give up our insistence that what’s in the stocking and under the tree is what we think we need to have for our life and happiness. We need to stop eating from the tree of good and evil and start eating from the tree of life.
This is another reason it is a good idea to teach children the story of the coming of God in human flesh in the person of baby Jesus. Santa can also be a fun story to tell, but personally I chose instead to tell the story of Kris Kringle who was generous in heart and gave to the poor children who had nothing and were grateful to receive whatever he gave.
This is a picture of you and me, the spiritually poor and needy, longing to have the deep needs of our heart and soul, as well as our body, fulfilled. We come to God with open hands and hungry souls and he generously gives us all we need for life and godliness.
It also teaches us to reach out to others with all God has given us and to freely fill their empty hands with his love and grace, and whatever other needs we may see. When we toss aside all our preconceptions of what God is doing and will do, and receive full what he is offering—himself in Christ through the Spirit in intimate relationship, moment by moment—we will never be the same. Because we will be living out Christmas all year round.
God has given us himself in Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and continues even now to pour himself out to us in the Holy Spirit. We can live as though none of this is true and continue to work to get the things we want and think we need all on our own—trying to fill the thirst of our soul in our own way. Or we can let go of all our expectations and receive the gift God has given—new life in Christ through the Spirit.
May your New Year be full of God’s love, truth and grace!
Thank you, Father, for the beautiful and generous gift you have given us of yourself in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Grant us the grace to let go of all the expectations and desires that consume our attention and to receive with open, empty hands your perfect gift. Throughout this new year and into the future, pour into us your new life, hope, joy, and peace. You are all we need. Amen.
“After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11 NASB