joy

Finding Blessings in Disaster and Suffering

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By Linda Rex

Last night my daughter and I crammed ourselves into the bathroom under the stairs along with our disaster essentials. Every time we left the room thinking the danger was past we would hear the tornado siren go off again. So back into the bathroom we would go.

The air conditioning went out earlier this week so we were getting pretty hot and steamy in our little cramped place. While I tried to cram some more from the commentaries for Sunday’s sermon, Eva started watching “Man from Snowy River” on her laptop. I love the scenery and music on the movie like she does, so I had a hard time concentrating on what I was doing. The movie then prompted conversation on all sorts of topics, even leading us to watch and listen to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke sing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” (Yes, I just looked it up to make sure I spelled it correctly.)

Even though I was pretty tired from lack of sleep, I was super grateful this morning to find we came away from the storm without any damage to our property. But I was sorry to see others were not quite so fortunate.

As I was reflecting on all this, I realized I don’t want anyone to have to struggle or suffer yet these are golden opportunities for the beauty of God’s love and grace to shine through. When these dangerous and difficult times come into our lives, they have a tremendous potential for building interdependence and for fostering deeper relationships with the people in our lives.

I remember many years ago up in Iowa when an ice storm shut down our power for over 24 hours. Yes, we were cold—it was in the teens outside. But we were blessed with a propane furnace in the basement from which the heat rose to the first floor, keeping the house about 50 degrees. We snuggled in blankets in the warmest place we could find in the house and played Monopoly by candlelight. The fun and sharing in the midst of our struggle is what I remember most about that disaster.

Now, I can think of other disasters which were devastating to me and my family financially or otherwise which we did not handle as well. What I have found is the difference lies in our ability to realize and believe the presence and power of God is with us in the midst of whatever is happening. When we have the peace of knowing and believing we are held in God’s love and care, there is a sense of rest and freedom which accompanies our trust in him.

It’s as though the Holy Spirit just pours over us a deep sense of calmness and even joy in the midst of the pressing circumstances. This doesn’t mean we are floating around on some false fairy cloud, but rather, in the midst of this place where evil is occurring, we have a sense there is a deeper mystery at work—one in which the Spirit is in the process of taking all this and turning it into something worthwhile, meaningful, and worthy of praise. And we can join in this mystery by trusting in the faithful love and grace of our God who is mightier than any evil force which may come against us.

Granted, sometimes the disasters which strike us are so evil and so devastating we are left numb and immobilized. We are so deeply wounded in these moments our response is anything but trusting and hopeful—especially when we are hit repeatedly by overwhelming events.

In these moments, it is important to lean on those in our lives who can lift us up by trusting in our place. They can pray when we have no words left. They can help us through one more day when we don’t know what we’re going to do next. And this is the calling of the body of Christ in Jesus’ command we love one another. This is the work the Spirit does in and through community in the midst of disaster and suffering.

Too many of us shut ourselves off from, or live and act in ways which destroy, meaningful relationships in our lives. And then we are left high and dry when we need someone to come alongside and help us. Sometimes merely circumstances which are out of our control cut us off from relationships which would normally offer us support, help and encouragement in the midst of suffering. In either of these situations, it would be helpful to know there are people willing and able to come alongside us to offer their assistance in spite of our failures or our circumstances.

I was looking at some of the reports on what was happening in Texas and Louisiana, and soon I was seeing pictures of people helping one another. Such physical acts of mercy and kindness crossed all relational borders. The compassion and caring of one human being for another and for animals and the environment was wonderful to see. This is the heart of Abba expressed in and by these people whether they realize it or not.

No matter how powerful evil and evildoers may get, I do not believe they can ever surpass the power of God’s presence and love expressed through human beings for one another and for the environment in which we live. Sometimes it may seem as though evil is winning. But I have learned we tend to see most clearly what we look for. If we only pay attention to the evil going on around us, I believe we may miss the kindness and goodness of God which is at work all around us in this world, especially since it often takes a different form from what we expect and it often works behind the scenes in invisible ways.

My heart and prayers go out to all those carrying an unbearable burden today. May you find in the midst of your suffering and difficulty the resilience to try one more time and to take one more step. May you be surrounded with caring, supportive people. And may you know beyond a shadow of doubt, you are loved and you are held in the unsurpassable love and grace of God.

Abba, thank you for remembering each and every person who is struggling today. Thank you for opening doors for them. Thank you for providing for their needs. Thank you for healing their wounds. And thank you for surrounding them with people who will protect them, love them, comfort them, help them, and challenge them. We know you hold each and every one of them in your love and grace through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple. For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle; in the secret place of His tent He will hide me; he will lift me up on a rock. And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me, and I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord.” Psalm 27:4–6 NASB

Sharing the Ups and Downs

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by Linda Rex

It never fails to astonish me how I can go from one extreme to the other in less than a day. One minute I’m sharing a fun, laughter-filled conversation with a couple new friends, and the next I am talking on the phone with someone who is experiencing a life crisis, sharing their concern and tears. Whether we like it or not, life in the Trinity contains some elements from the entire spectrum of the human experience.

We may think the divine Godhead only experiences transcendent bliss all the time. But in reality, the Father, Son, and Spirit have opened up their life to include ours. And ours is filled with experiences which are positive and negative, and every nuance in between.

As God in Christ by the Spirit shares all of life with us as he lives in us, and as God in Christ through the Spirit experienced in his life here on earth human experiences just like ours, we have a God who shares the wide measure of experiences and emotions we do as human beings. And he does not avoid our painful situations or struggles.

The testimony of the Old Testament shows us a God who wrestled with his chosen people. The psalmists and prophets write about a God who experienced and expressed love, compassion, anger, sorrow, pain, and many other emotions. This God we worship is the same One who created our human capacity to experience this wide variety of thoughts, feelings and responses to our experiences in life. They reflect the very nature of God himself.

It is possible as a human being to be ruled by our emotions to the point we do not control ourselves or our responses appropriately. Obviously, this is not what God intended for us, since it really isn’t a good reflection of who we are as God’s children.

But neither did God intend for us to bury our genuine human response to those things we experience in our lives. Sometimes we do this without realizing this is what we are doing. This may be because of past experiences in our life which have left us wounded. Or it may be because we were taught expressing our emotions verbally or in other ways is inappropriate or unacceptable.

In any case, it is good to reflect on the wide variety of emotional expression which is attributed to God in the Scripture, and to examine whether we ourselves express emotion in healthy ways. It is obvious being a healthy person includes healthy emotional expression. And there is much we can learn about ourselves from the example of Jesus Christ.

If we go through life thinking if we just do things the way God wants us to, everything in our life will be marvelous and wonderful—we need to reconsider. God doesn’t give us those types of guarantees.

Yes, life is better when we live in the truth of who we are as God’s children. When that perfected humanity which is in Christ is the humanity we are doing our best to live out day by day in the Spirit—life is indeed much better. Relationships are healthier and happier. Things seem to run much smoother in our lives—especially when we are part of a healthy, happy spiritual community.

But we do live in a broken world, with broken people, who do silly, stupid, hurtful things. We get caught unawares sometimes and say and do things we never mean to say or do. Catastrophic events occur. Our bodies give out, get sick, and betray us. Life just happens—and it’s not always pretty.

And so we respond to all these experiences in our life. And our responses cover a very wide spectrum of emotions, actions, words and deeds. Whatever our response may be—let it be genuine and real—from the heart. Let it be what is really down there deep inside.

If you are grieving, then I say—grieve. Travel that road of grief which takes you through that valley of sadness, anger, depression, and resolution to the other side where you begin your new life without whatever or whoever you have lost. Feel your pain and express it in healthy ways. Don’t hang on to the past—grieve it and move on, as and when you are able to.

If you are angry, then I say, as the Scripture does—be angry and don’t sin. Anger is an expression of our response to us, or someone else, being violated in some way. The purpose of anger is to help us have the ability to respond to this so we can make the situation right. But what does that look like? If we bury our anger inside or turn it against ourselves, that isn’t healthy. If we take in out on others—that’s not healthy either. But anger can be a good thing when it is used the way God uses it—to make things right in the end.

Do you feel joy? Share it with God and with others! Sing those praise songs. Tell those who will rejoice with you about how wonderful life is right now. How do you like to express joy? If it’s healthy and blesses you and others—then share that joy! I love it when someone is just bubbling over with joy and it drips all over me, and I end up grinning from ear to ear.

Too often we allow those around us and their opinions of us determine our response to our experiences in life. Yes, no doubt, there are times to be self-controlled and discrete about our responses to things. Occasionally one has to wait for the appropriate time to express oneself. I’ve caught myself giggling in the midst of an important business meeting—very bad timing to be expressing joy when the boss is laying down the law. But for the most part, can we not learn to be genuine and real?

Part of our sharing in the Triune life is the feeling and expressing of genuine human emotion. This includes such a wide variety of human experiences and our responses to them—taking us through deep dark valleys, and up sun-lit mountain sides as well. Who knows what a day may bring to us? Whatever we face, we go through it held in, surrounded by, filled with the very Presence of God in Christ by the Spirit, sharing every human expression of life with the Trinity.

Thank you, Abba, we never go through life alone. You feel what we feel—you experience with us all of life, knowing how painful things are, how wonderful some things are, and how crazy life is sometimes. Thank you, God, for sharing all of life with us. May we always be genuine and real in our response to what life brings our way, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.” Hebrews 5:7 NASB

“You have taken account of my wanderings; put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?”
Psalm 56:8 NASB

Peace on Earth

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by Linda Rex

Have you ever had one of those days when no matter where you turned, something horrible was happening or had happened, and someone’s life was shattered and broken? Do you ever have your heart so broken by what’s happening around you you think you will never be able to put it back together again?

There is so much awfulness going on around us today. It seems like there is no end to the horrendous things people do to one another. No matter how hard we try to make this a healthy and happy experience, we still lose dear ones and children. And it can seem like that’s all there is to this world. The possibility of hope in the midst of all this can seem very small.

This time of year during Advent we celebrate the coming into a dark and forbidding world of a ray of light, a beam of hope—the coming of God into our humanity to share our struggles and sufferings and to bring us new life. How fitting it is that our common desire for a messiah, a rescuer, was met with the gift of a little infant who bore the very Presence and Being of God himself.

The problem is we prefer God to rescue us on our own terms. During Jesus’ life here on earth, he was expected to be the Conquering King messiah, when he was really meant to be the lay-down-his-life Suffering Servant messiah. Our expectations of how God should rescue us often drive the way we see him and the way we experience our world, and they need readjusted.

Truth is, while this God/man Jesus Christ was on earth, he healed a lot of people, but he didn’t heal everyone who was sick. He may have thrown some vendors out of the temple, but he didn’t get rid of them over and over while he was here. He may have raised Lazarus and the young man in Nain from the dead, but he did not raise all the other people around him who died while he was here on earth.

It’s hard to picture this about our Savior, but he did not stop the slavery he saw about him. Nor did he intervene in every situation to stop the Romans from crucifying people. No doubt he saw and experienced much suffering and grief while he was here. But he didn’t stop it all and fix it all right there and then. His Father had something much different in mind.

Our way of dealing with things so often focuses on the right-here-and-now. It seems we need to be given an eternal perspective—one which focuses, not on morality or a pain-free life, but on relationship. Relationships can be difficult, messy and painful, and we so often prefer not to deal with the truth of the issues which are going on in our own hearts, much less those going on in the hearts of those around us.

The engagement of human hearts with the Divine Heart of love is something which takes us down paths we don’t want to go. We want peace, joy, love, happiness, hope. But we don’t want a relationship with the One who gives us those things, nor do we want to live in agreement with the truth of the reality for which we were created. I’m just being real here: We prefer to live in our own little bubble of reality, rather than in the truth of who we really are, the humans God created us to be—people who love God and love one another with outgoing, self-sacrificing love and humility.

God—Father, Son, and Spirit—has such a deep respect for our personhood, which reflects the divine Personhood, he does not impose his will on us, but rather invites us to participate in the true reality of life in the Trinity. There is a way of being we were created for which reflects the divine Way of Being, and we can live in this way, or in a way of our own devising.

We can decide for ourselves how we are going to use our bodies, our belongings, our world, or we can surrender to the reality we are not God and begin to use them all in the way God created them to be used in the first place. God has given us incredible freedom, and does not ever impose his will unless it is imperative to accomplishing his ultimate purposes in the world—to bring many children into glory.

So often we want God to straighten up things in the world, but the minute we begin to experience the possibility of him intervening, we get all upset, because he isn’t doing things the way we want him to do them. We struggle with the real dichotomy within our own human hearts—our desire to love and be loved, and our natural human rebellion against allowing God to be the supreme lover of our soul.

This puts us in a very difficult position. We are experiencing the consequences of our human rebellion against the Lord of the universe, but we are angry with God because we are experiencing these consequences. It is not our fault when we get mugged by someone or our loved one gets murdered—we did not do anything to deserve this suffering. It is not our fault someone dear to us developed cancer and died—they were a good person, so why did they have to die—we didn’t deserve this.

And this is all true. So many of us are experiencing the consequences of things others have done and which are not our fault. Others of us seem to get away with everything and never suffer any consequences. It all seems so unfair. And it really is, in one sense.

But from the viewpoint of the Divine grace of God, neither was the suffering and death of the little infant who lay in a manger that Bethlehem night. Here was God’s supreme gift to humanity—his very Person in human flesh. And we did to him what was in our hearts—we rejected him, abused him, and crucified him.

At no point did Jesus refuse to embrace the truth of the evil in our human hearts. Yes, he shed great tears and earnestly sought a different way, but in the end, he surrendered himself to the truth of the darkness in human hearts. And by doing so, he opened a way for Light to enter the world. In his life in this dark world, his suffering and crucifixion, he bore all that we go through, and then he died and rose again—to offer us hope in a new life, a new world to come where we could truly begin to experience life in the Trinity as God intended.

The Light of God entered the world, but then in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we find that the Light of God has entered human hearts. The Spirit has been sent of offer us our new existence in relationship with the Triune God of love. Our experience of the new life Christ has forged for us is found in the midst of this relationship of love—in true community with God and others.

If we were to look around us and even within our own hearts, we might find instead of darkness, the glimmer of the hope created for us in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Opening our hearts to the Light of God, we might find that this Light is shining all around us, in other human hearts, in difficult and painful situations, in the offering of joy and happy relationships in the midst of a dark world. The Light has come into the world—will we open our hearts and lives and embrace the wonder of this precious gift? Or will we continue down our own stubborn path of resistance to the truth of how things really are?

Either way, we have been given a hope, a joy, a peace we did not deserve. God has declared his heart toward us is love and grace. He has ordained peace on earth, in and through his Son Jesus Christ and by the gift of his Spirit. And one day, we will begin to experience the truth of this in a way we cannot even begin to imagine now.

Today and in this moment, we can participate in this gift by receiving it, opening it up, and enjoying the blessings of all God has given us in this gift of his Son. May you each have a very blessed Christmas, enjoying all the blessings of life in Jesus by the Spirit as Abba’s good and perfect gift. Merry Christmas!

Dear Abba, thanks for giving us the best of all gifts, your Son in the form of a baby in a manger. How can it be you love us so much you would give us your very heart?! Forgive us—so often we are unappreciative of your many gifts, especially this One Who was meant to bring us near to you in real, intimate relationship for all eternity. May we set aside all our expectations of you, and receive in true humility all we need for life and godliness—your most precious divine gifts—your Son and your Spirit. In your Name we pray, amen.

“The true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone, was coming into the world. He entered our world, a world He made; yet the world did not recognize Him. Even though He came to His own people, they refused to listen and receive Him. But for all who did receive and trust in Him, He gave them the right to be reborn as children of God; He bestowed this birthright not by human power or initiative, but by God’s will. The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us. We have seen Him, enveloped in undeniable splendor—the one true Son of the Father—evidenced in the perfect balance of grace and truth.” John 1:9-14 (The Voice Bible)

Sharing the Gift of Thanksgiving

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by Linda Rex

As I was driving through the Tennessee countryside this morning, I was soaking up the inherent beauty of the fall colors in the leaves of the trees and the deep blue of the clear sky. There is such a sense of God’s presence and nearness in his creation, especially when the plants, trees, animals and earth are just being who they were created to be. And how cool it is that we, as human beings and God’s creatures, get to be a part of reflecting God’s glory!

Last night I participated in a discussion at the Highland Heights Neighborhood Association meeting in which we talked about being aware of and sensitive to the needs of the people in the community who are marginalized and forgotten. In the light of this, as a neighborhood group working to improve our community, we asked the question, “Where do we go from here?” and “What can we do to help?”

Truthfully, there are people down the street from our church who live every day in such poverty and squalor they are not able, even if they wished, to soak up the beauty of the Tennessee countryside. They live in housing which is uninhabitable by modern standards, and have little hope for anything better. How, in the midst of the struggle of daily life, can they enjoy the best of life? What does it mean for them to just be who they were created to be? Is it even possible for them?

And indeed, how are they any different from you or me? They have this existence they have found themselves in and they, like you and me, seek to do the best they are able to along the way, trying to find and create life in the midst of death and poverty and struggle. They, like we do, breathe the same air, need the same food and water we do, and long to love and be loved, for that is what they, like we, were created for.

It would be easy to say, for example, that a particular group of people being considered last night as being in need were not part of our neighborhood therefore not a part of our responsibility. But indeed, we must never forget we are neighbor to each and every person in this world in our Lord Jesus Christ. In him we are connected at the center of our being to every other person who exists, no matter whether we like them or not. There is a core relatedness which Jesus Christ created in us and in himself which demands we treat each other as brothers and sisters, not as strangers or aliens.

And this is hard to do, because we as human beings are broken. We have addictions, mental and emotional and physical illnesses, and quirks which make us unpleasant people to be around. We have character flaws which sometimes make it unsafe for others to be around us. We have generational and personal habits and ways of being and talking which do not line up with who we are created to be in Jesus Christ, and they divide us from one another.

This morning I was looking at some photos from around the world taken over the last year which illustrated something significant which happened on that particular day. Most of the photos told the story of people in the midst of struggle—of war, refugees, destruction, natural disasters—all the ways in which people were wrestling with their desire for life in the midst of death and loss. Here and there was a picture of someone celebrating or worshiping, but they were few and far between.

It seems, apparently, struggle is a part of the human existence, whether we like it or not. Poverty, displacement, homelessness, and war plague us no matter where we live. Jesus said at one point, “…You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:8 NLT). There is a reality about our human existence and it is we do not live as we ought and we do not treat others as we ought, and so people end up living in ways they were never meant to have to live. Our human existence today is a reflection of how we seek to find life in the ways which only create destruction and death, and of how our earth is broken and reflects the harm we humans have done to it over the centuries.

It is no wonder the youth of our day sometimes feel a sense of despair and hopelessness. What kind of future do they have to look forward to? And what about our marginalized neighbors who expect to only see more of the same in the years ahead? What hope do they have?

I believe this is where we run into a fundamental flaw in our thinking as Christians. We see all this and can say, things are so bad we must be near the end of the world, so Jesus is going to come and punish all the bad people and establish his kingdom. This conveniently places everything back into the hands of an angry God who will deal with all this stuff so we don’t have to. It removes any need for us to encounter and deal with on a face-to-face basis the suffering of our neighbor right now, today, in our everyday lives.

I thought it was instructive last night that the heads more than once turned towards our end of the table and it was indicated that the churches in the neighborhood were expected to do something about the problems in the neighborhood. At the NOAH meeting, I heard the city officials say the non-profit organizations were the ones who ought to be solving the homelessness problem. Why do communities turn to God’s people with the needs of those who are homeless and poverty-stricken rather than to the government? What is it they believe we have and can do which cannot be found elsewhere?

At this point, I’m not really sure. But I do know this—when God goes to work in a human heart and mind, things change. When God goes to work in a community, things change. When God goes to work in a family, a church, an office or a city, things change. And one of the biggest changes to occur is a change in human hearts and minds.

It seems at times God doesn’t care as much about the poverty of our circumstances as he does about the poverty of our soul. The path to new life is through suffering and death, whether we like it or not. When he goes to work though, as hearts and minds are healed and renewed, circumstances in peoples’ lives change as well.

We as Christians need to realize the magnitude of what we bring to the table in the situations we face in our neighborhoods and in our world. We may have no power to fix the problems faced directly. But we do have the power of prayer and the community of faith. We do have the ability to walk with people through their times of darkness and to share with them the Light of life. We do have the ability to ease their suffering in some ways, even though in other ways we are impotent in being able to help.

The greatest thing we can do for others is to offer them a relationship of love and grace in which Jesus Christ is the center. We can come alongside others and share in the divine Paraclete’s ministry of counsel, intercession and comfort. We can share with others the blessings we have received from Abba so they may also experience the joy of thanksgiving as we do. We can work to help others to be and become those people God created them to be, so they may begin to enjoy the best of life, which is living in loving community with God and one another.

This is my heart and desire for the people of Tennessee, and for all people, for that matter. And I know it is also the heart and desire of our members at Good News Fellowship. We have been given our Abba’s heart of love and grace and we want to share it with others. We want all people to be overwhelmed just as we are with the overflowing joy of thanksgiving for our Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have given us true life in their presence both now and forever.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness, and for drawing us to yourself by your Son and in your Spirit, so we each and all may participate with you in a communion of love and grace both now and forever. Renew in us your heart of love and grace so we may love others with your perfect love and forgive as we are forgiven. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” Colossians 1:9–12 NASB

The Seduction of Ingratitude

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Colorful pumpkins and mums--fall's here!
Colorful pumpkins and mums–fall’s here!

by Linda Rex

Recently while I was having one of those days when all I could see were the issues and struggles which come with trying to make ends meet, I had a small epiphany. I say small, because I know I have had this revelation before, but it never seems to have a lasting effect on my psyche.

It occurred to me, as I struggled to work out how I was going to manage to do this, that and the other thing, that I was so busy trying to hold everything together that I wasn’t thanking God for how he has held everything together for me all these years. It’s not that I haven’t thanked him over the years as he has held me and rescued me over and over, and it’s not that I haven’t been aware of his provision and support all these years. It’s just that, in the midst of those particular struggles of the moment, I was forgetting God’s faithfulness and love for me.

In reality, God has carried me through some very difficult and painful times over the years. He has helped me through some impossible situations, and has healed some excruciating hurts. He has provided for me when I had nothing and blessed me beyond my expectations. I have every reason to believe God is going to do for me now what he has done for me before.

But sometimes, in the midst of a particular time of struggle, it can be really hard to see what is true about Who God is for me in the midst of the darkness which surrounds me. It is as though what I am going through becomes the lens through which I see my life, God, the world and everyone around me. It’s as though I’ve put on dark lenses on a cloudy day—everything is dimmed and it’s hard to see any light of any kind.

I can find myself in the midst of ingratitude and not even realize it. It’s as though ingratitude, or not being thankful for what God has done for me or given me, sneaks up on me while I’m busy going about the business of living my life, solving my problems and getting my life in order. I’m working on moving forward with my life, when what I need to be doing is pausing for a moment to look back, and to reflect on what God has done, is doing, and will do in my life, and to thank him for loving and caring for me.

It’s important for us to take time to reflect, and to ponder the reality of the ways in which God’s life intersects with our life and how we, moment by moment, participate in the divine life and love. When we take the time to think back to look at what God has done and to thank him for it, what becomes the central focus of our mind and heart becomes gratitude, rather than worry, concern or fear. When we accept the truth of God’s faithfulness and begin to trust he’ll care for us as he’s cared for us before, we are filled with hopeful gratitude rather than anxious concern.

Gratitude in many ways is a spiritual discipline. It is a spiritual discipline in which showing gratitude to God opens us up to the work of the Spirit as he builds within us a heart of humility, dependence upon the Father, and hope and trust in the love and grace of God. Practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude enables us to take off the dark lenses which dim our view and enables us to experience the reality and blessings of God’s kingdom of light. The more we express our gratitude to God, the more we sense the bright light of God’s presence and peace, and have hope for the future in the midst of our difficult circumstances.

One of the ways to practice gratitude as a spiritual discipline is to keep a journal of thankfulness. Those who have done this, and I agree with them, say practicing the discipline of writing down several things they are thankful for every day enabled them to have a more thankful and hopeful heart and mind. There is something to be said for intentionally making the effort to express our gratitude to God for the big and little things of life which both bless us and cause us to struggle.

One of the things which can be challenging to do as a spiritual discipline of gratitude, is praying for our needs, wants and concerns from a point of view of gratefulness and trust rather than in a tone or attitude of despair. I have been finding myself apologizing to God lately for assuming that somehow he isn’t going to come through for me—what kind of God do I or we believe God is? It sure makes a difference in our approach to the problems of life and our prayer about them.

Ingratitude can sneak up on us in so many subtle ways. If all we do is assume God doesn’t care about us or isn’t going to help so we have to beg and plead for him to intervene, it seems perhaps we need to pause and reflect on the reality we are still breathing air and there is still an earth to live on and the sun is still shining. It may be difficult to do in the midst of a crisis, but we need to remember Who God is—the One who joined us in our humanity, shared our broken existence, and died and rose so this world is not the end. There is so much more to life than just this!

The Spirit is available to remind us of God’s real presence in every situation. Jesus shares every difficulty with us—and he puts the resources of heaven at our disposal. He is still Lord over the universe and holds all things in his hand—and his love is unmistakable—he has proven it in a way which cannot be reversed or retracted. And he will not quit until he finishes what he has begun in us and in all creation.

The Light has come. So we need to take off our dark glasses and revel in this truth—God’s got it! Whatever it is in this life which we struggle with is only a light and momentary difficulty. In the end it will be seen as just a bump in the road in our journey of life with Jesus in the Spirit. So we thank our Abba, Jesus and the Spirit for their faithful love and grace, and move on with grateful hearts.

Abba, thank you. Thank you for understanding and being patient with us when we forget to express our gratitude to you for all you are and all you do in your great love and mercy. Thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit, and for the big and little ways in which you care for us moment by moment. Grant us grateful hearts and minds, and make us alert to the ways in which we give ourselves over to ingratitude so we can turn from them and turn back to you in praise and gratitude. Through Jesus, our Lord, amen.

“Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God.” Heb 12:28 MSG

Expanding Our Concept of Community

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grape hyacinth

by Linda Rex

Last evening I attended a neighborhood association meeting for the community around our Nashville church site. I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to meet and get to know our neighbors a little better and to see them at work as they join together to bring improvements to the Highland Heights neighborhood.

One of the things being impressed on my mind more and more as I build these relationships is the understanding that God often works in community. Although I would not characterize all of these people necessarily as “churchgoers”, nevertheless I see in them a sincere desire to do the right thing and to make their world a better, safer place in which to live. I see them participating in God’s love and life—his work in the world to further his kingdom life right here and right now in the midst of difficult and sometimes alarming circumstances.

The longer I have served in this neighborhood, the more God has worked to change my attitude and approach toward this community. When I first came to the Nashville area, I was overwhelmed by the urban sprawl and the impersonal way of living and being which comes with living in the big city. I was frightened by the prospect of interacting with people in the church neighborhood because the community seemed dark and dangerous. Some of the people who we sought to help seemed to bring with them chaos, dishonesty and a determined effort to use and abuse those of us who wished to help them.

Since that time I have had multiple opportunities to meet and become acquainted with people who live and work in the neighborhood surrounding our church. I have found the demographic is dynamic—it is constantly changing. And our neighborhood is in the midst of a transition which is creating its own struggles and dangers.

I have learned our neighbors want a place where they can live together in peace, where their children can play safely in the front yard, and where they can enjoy their belongings without fearing someone will come and steal them. They want to have community events where they can get together and do fun stuff like at their recent East Eggstravaganza, which provided a safe environment for kids to play, learn and have fun. They just want what we all want—to live joyfully together in peace, being able to go about our lives without concern or fear.

This sounds to me like our neighbors want to live in Christian community, although I realize they would not call it by that name. And they would not want to have anyone limit them to a “Christian” or “church” box in order to have that community. Sadly, for them, “church” and “Christian” have negative connotations, because they are perceived as a means of restricting community not creating community.

And I do not believe this is what God intends. Too often our modern Christianity here in the West has had the “us” against “them” mentality. Some are “in” while others are “out”. We fail to realize God does not work within our restrictions. I have met many people who are seeking to follow Jesus faithfully but who are disenchanted by the gracelessness and pride of the modern church, and so they do not attend church services. But they are active in creating Christian community and following Christ.

There was a time here in America where a church building was a place the community would gather, where children might be schooled, where community concerns were raised and resolved, and where the community would come together for celebrations. Not everyone was a Sunday-go-to-meeting type of person, but they knew the church building was where the people came together for the essential matters of life in their community.

Today, however, a church is seen as non-essential, as even intrusive upon a community. It was suggested last night that our neighborhood group could meet in the community center at a church since it was a quieter venue, and more conducive to gathering as a group and talking. But a valid concern was raised—wouldn’t people be put off from attending meetings by the knowledge they were being held at a church?

There was discomfort with the idea of meeting in a church building, even though we would not be meeting in the church proper, because there was this innate fear someone would try to force them into believing something or doing something they were not comfortable with. There was not a perception of the church building as being simply a community gathering place.

This whole experience has been enlightening to me. I am beginning to understand more and more why there is a disconnect between us as a church community and our neighborhood community. The two ought to be so intertwined that it is hard to see the difference. Even though they are not one and the same community, they both include participants in God’s life and love. They are both at work in their own way of furthering his kingdom work in the world.

God is at work in every person’s life, whether they know it or not. And God is at work in these community groups, calling people together to do his work in the world. We can continue to isolate ourselves and create unnecessary divisions between “us” and “them”, or we can participate in his work to create harmony and unity, and to bring healing, health and wholeness to a broken world.

Our little church community in Nashville has been serving the people of their neighborhood for many years with the weekly lunch we serve at our Community Café. We have been striving to build healthy relationships with the people we meet, to serve and pray for them at this event every Sunday. This is an effort to serve our neighbors—and in my mind is very much a way exclusive of our worship services in which we hold “church” every week. We participate in God’s work in the neighborhood in this way.

But there are also other ways in which we can stop being “churchy” and start being good neighbors. We can become a community center where people can gather for fun and fellowship. We can begin to participate in community events and help to keep our neighborhood safe and clean. We can help tend to the needy, poor, the widow(er)s and orphans. There is much to be done when it comes to participating in God’s work in our neighborhood.

Whether or not people become members of our church or become Christians as a part of this process, in my mind, is irrelevant. That’s God’s call and is up to him whether or not that occurs—such things are a work of his Spirit. What matters most is we are being what God created us to be, his children living in harmony, unity, in our own diverse manner as equals in a loving, compassionate community. As we serve one another in love, following Christ wherever he leads us, we will find ourselves and our community transformed. May we be diligent in so doing.

Abba, thank you for all the brothers and sisters you have given us in Christ your Son and by your Spirit. Change our minds and hearts so we will begin to include others in our life of fellowship, and we will begin to participate more fully in what you are doing in this world to create your community which reflects the oneness, diversity and equality and love in your being as God. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” John 17:23

Stopping the Hiding

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Ice on holly leaves and berries
Ice on holly leaves and berries

By Linda Rex

Lent: Many years ago I used to have recurring nightmares of trying to hide from scary people or events by hiding in the walls of my home or escaping over the backyard fence. This was during a time in my life where I was starting to come to understand the magnificence of God’s grace to me while also going through some very difficult personal experiences.

I began some studies related to abuse and co-dependency, but also came across some information regarding dreams and how sometimes they are related to the internal struggles we may be going through. One of these sources indicated that dreams involving one’s home of origin spoke to the need to resolve inner issues that had not been addressed or with which one is wrestling.

The idea that I had some inner issues that needed resolved was not a new concept for me. I had already concluded that I needed to bring some light into some very dark places in my life—places where I had been abused, shamed and broken. But up to that time I had never felt safe enough to acknowledge them, much less to admit to them and begin to deal with them. I was busy hiding behind all the walls I had built up throughout my life, and spent much of my time and effort escaping my problems and pain rather than facing them.

But healing of this nature does not occur until such a time as a person is willing and able to open dark places to the healing light of God’s presence and grace. Indeed, Jesus said we experience real freedom when we measure ourselves against the light of the truth of Jesus and allow him to set us free. There is an appropriate place for us to practice the spiritual disciplines of examen and confession.

First, I’m always having to remind people that spiritual disciplines are not rituals or rites. They become rituals or rites when we misapply them, using these practices as a means of trying to make things right with God or to get God to do something for us. A spiritual discipline is very different.

When a person is walking closely with God, they will sense that God is wanting them to open another area of their lives up to him for the Holy Spirit to go to work. Often he places a desire in their heart to grow up in Christ in a new and different way. Such growth only occurs, though, by the Spirit’s transforming power and work in a person’s heart and mind, and life. So, when a person feels this sense of God’s leading, they can open themselves up to a new work of the Spirit by practicing spiritual disciplines. This creates space for God to go to work.

There are many spiritual disciplines Christians have practiced over the centuries. One of these is examen. This spiritual discipline involves “discerning the voice and activity of God within the flow of the day. It is a vehicle that creates deeper awareness of God-given desires in one’s life” (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, pg 52).

An example of this practice in action would be when at the end of the day, a person would reflect on his or her experiences and consider how and when they experienced God’s presence throughout the day, and what brought, as some describe it, “consolation” or “desolation”. In examen we reflect on what was life-giving and what was life-draining, where we gave and received love and where we failed to do so.

It is an opportunity to consider our relationship with God and to invite the Holy Spirit to show us those things we can be grateful for and those things which may need to be changed, and to invite him to make those changes in us. As you may see, this spiritual discipline is a way to open our life up to God’s light and allow him to go to work. Practicing it regularly can help us to become more aware of God’s presence in our lives and in what ways we are actively participating in Christ’s work in the world and in us.

The other spiritual discipline I mentioned is confession. We often associate confession with the Roman Catholic practice of confessing one’s sins to a priest, but confession as a spiritual discipline is quite different. Self-examination is not meant to be, as Calhoun puts it, “a neurotic shame-inducing inventory.” Rather it is a way of opening up ourselves in the context of God’s love and grace so that we can in a real, authentic way, seek his transformation.

Confession carries this process of self-examination forward in a two-sided way. One is the declaration of what is true about ourselves—we are broken in some way and fall short of who God created us to be. The other is the declaration of who we are in Christ, the real truth of our being—that we are redeemed and in Christ we have and do experience renewal and transformation.

Our confession begins first between us and God. The light of God penetrates that dark place and we open up to God and agree that yes, this is true about me. But for real healing to be found and true freedom experienced, we may need to carry that confession forward to a friend, a safe person such as a counselor, or in the context of public error, there may need to be public confession. (James 5:16)

But talking about our faults and places of brokenness is not enough. We can talk about them until we are blue in the face, bemoan them, flagellate ourselves about them, but nothing will change in our lives. At least, not until we confess Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord who did something about them. He has freed us from our brokenness and given us new life—we begin to confess that, and begin to invite others to share in that forgiveness, healing and restoration, and we will begin to experience transformation.

This is why so often God brings light into some dark place in our lives and then begins to bring us into relationship with others who are struggling with the same things. As I began to deal with the abuse I experienced, bringing it into the light by being honest and truthful about it, and by sharing this struggle with others, God began to allow me to help others along on a similar journey. And in the process we all experienced God’s grace and healing.

In my case, the dark dreams stopped. Walking in the light of God’s grace and healing meant I didn’t need to hide behind my walls any more. I could be genuine and real, and broken, and I was still loved, forgiven and accepted by God and by others. I began to recognize God’s presence throughout my days in the positive and the negative experiences of my life. And in sharing my broken places with others, I could help them on their journey of healing.

All of this occurs and did occur within the context of relationship. God calls us to love him and to love one another. It is in the light of spiritual community with God and others that we can stop the hiding and begin to live freely and joyfully, as well as transparently, and with authenticity and integrity. May God give us the courage and faith to come out behind our walls, and to quit running and hiding.

Dad, thank you that you are so tender with us when we are broken. And you want us to feel safe enough with you that we can and will open up our dark places to your light so you can mend and heal them. Grant us the grace to be brave enough to let others join with us in this journey of transformation and to respond obediently to your calls to open ourselves up to the light of your love and grace. Thank you, that through your Son we have redemption and restoration. In his name we pray, amen.

“So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, “You will become free”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.’” John 8:31–36 NASB