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Growing in Neighborliness

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by Linda Rex

I grew up in the suburbs of metropolitan Los Angeles and know what it’s like to live in a big city. Today I live and work in and near metropolitan Nashville.

I find living in a large city such as Nashville or L.A. has its strong points, and I can see why people would want to live and work in these hubs of humanity. There are many opportunities to be found in close proximity, especially with regards to cultural and recreational attractions, employment opportunities, and educational institutions.

Living in a big city is not what I would prefer, but I can appreciate the benefits of this lifestyle. I personally prefer small town living, but have learned to adapt to the higher stress, less privacy and less relaxed environment of this area. This is because I have learned over the years that whether urban or rural, the people who live in this world are at their heart, the same as you and me—we all are made in God’s image to live together in loving community.

Between these two adventures in big city living, I also lived in rural southeast Iowa, where the closest city of any real size was at least forty-five minutes from home. In that part of the United States of America, it was not uncommon for people to leave their homes and cars unlocked, and for neighbors to enter by the back door.

When I was eight months pregnant and going to town on a hot summer day, my car ran out of gas two miles from the closest town. I was a lot less nervous then about having someone help me than I am today because that’s what people did there when someone was in trouble. Neighbors were neighbors and looked out for one another.

As I’ve gotten to know more of the people who live next door to Good News Fellowship in Nashville, I’ve come to see that same heart of true neighborliness also exists here and there in the community around our church. Many of our neighbors are kind, helpful people who want their neighborhood to be a safe, upbeat, and warm community where old and young people alike can live free from abuse or neglect.

Our neighbors want to be able to walk or run down their streets during the day and the night, and not fear they will get mugged, or simply shot because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They would like to be able to trust that someone will not steal their belongings, or damage their cars, or invade their homes. They would like to live without fear, and to be able to trust others with their lives, their homes and their belongings.

Our neighbors simply want to be good neighbors who live in loving community. They want to help people who need to be watched out for, such as elderly or sick neighbors who can’t get out or who are easily taken advantage of. They want to get together to share a meal or to clean the trash off the streets. Whether or not they realize it, in doing these things in community, they are sharing in the unmistakeable heart of love and compassion which exists within the inner relationship of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.

In our common humanity, whether urban or rural dwellers, we were created to live with one another in this kind of loving community. We were not created to prey on one another or to take advantage of one another. We were created to love one another and to look out for one another. When we don’t live together with love and respect and understanding, all kinds of misery is the result. This is because we are not being who we really are—who we were created by God to be.

True neighborliness which is loving and respectful cannot be legislated. It is not really possible to tell people to be good to one another and expect them to do it just because there are laws which say they should and penalties for when they don’t. External efforts to create loving community are no guarantee such community will come into existence and then stay.

The heart of love and compassion which is at the root of true neighborliness has its source in our God of love—the One who pours his love into us by his Holy Spirit. We find God at work in many places and in many people who we, because of our prejudices and presuppositions, believe are not good people. We need to open our hearts and minds to the reality God is at work in each person’s life and heart—we are all made in God’s image and redeemed by his Son and given the gift of the Spirit who is at work in this world.

Our participation in the work the Spirit is doing in this world to bring the love of the Father and the Son to full fruition is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to pray for, love and respect each person God places in front of us. Those who are so broken as to prey upon us, violate us and steal from us need this love just as much as we need it. So we follow Jesus’ instruction to pray for them, to love and bless them, while guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Sometimes in order to do God’s work of loving others, we need to have and use healthy boundaries.

As members of the body of Christ, we as members of Christian churches have a responsibility to lead others in loving the unlovely, and caring for the broken and downtrodden. We are called to demonstrate through loving actions the real caring and compassion which exists within the Trinity and should exist within the body of Christ. We should all work together, no matter our creed, in the unity of the Spirit and the oneness of Christ, to show the neighborly love of God to others in our church neighborhood.

When we do this, we are entering into a battle for our community. The kingdom of darkness does not appreciate any light we may bring into our neighborhood, and so there is a struggle. But we walk in the assurance that Christ has done what was needed to defeat the darkness. We walk by faith, not by sight. In other words, we keep loving, praying for and showing compassion to those Christ places in front of us, and bear up, by God’s grace, under whatever opposition may come our way. We walk the difficult road of building up community when efforts are being made to tear it down.

Holy Father, by your Son and in the Spirit, empower us to love one another as you created us to. Give us hearts of compassion and respect. Make us “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” as we interact with our neighbors, whoever they may be. God, by your great love, create loving community within our neighborhood so we can experience the same love which exists in your very Being as Father, Son and Spirit. In your Name, we pray. Amen.

“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB

Leading with Love

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Tree covered in ice silhouetted against the sky.
Tree covered in ice silhouetted against the sky.

by Linda Rex

One of the difficulties of life as a single parent is the need to do things for your children which are normally done by both parents. It’s really difficult to play the role of father and mother for a child. There are some things only a mother does well, and some things only a father is really good at. We do the best we can as single parents, but there are some things we just can’t do.

It was easy for me to see early on as a single mom, I could never provide for my son or daughter the feeling which comes when a dad recognizes, values and affirms his children. I could recognize the hunger for this affirmation and attachment, but I still could not fill those needs.

A father has the capacity to destroy his children’s self-worth and crush their belief in themselves and in their ability to succeed simply with a glare or condemning word or by indifferent neglect. But he also has the ability to teach a child to take on challenges and to believe he or she can do the impossible. He can teach them what it means to be loved and valued as a human being. It’s all in how a parent leads.

I was raised in a family which valued authority because of what they believed about who God was. In the early years, dad was in charge and nothing happened without his approval and direction. We feared him and did our best to be good kids so as not to upset him.

As an older adult, I realize now my dad repented of this way of leading the family, and began to mellow over the years and eventually learned and used the power of love and understanding to bring about change in his children in place of authoritarian control. As a teen, I experienced his grace and understanding in many ways. He understood in his later years that leading in love is much more effective than leading by control and coercion.

Control and coercion are external motivators. Motivators like shame, guilt, fear and anger are also external motivators. Dictators, controlling and dominating people, and terrorists like to use motivators such as these to force people to agree to their expectations and terms in an effort to create a society in which everyone does the same thing. These external motivators may create a form of unity, but it is a unity that is merely in form, not necessarily in content. In other words—you may have a person’s compliance, but you don’t necessarily have their wholehearted obedience.

The most powerful thing a parent, and especially a dad, can do, is to love, truly love, their children. This is the kind of love which sets healthy boundaries for a child and enforces them, not punitively, but with grace. This is the kind of love which values each child as a unique person, and so finds their bent and helps grow them to be that person God created them to be.

When a parent has a strong, healthy relationship with a child in which they really see that child for who he or she is, and value their child as a gift from God, and are deeply involved in their child’s life, this creates a bond of love between the child and the parent. This bond can be highly motivating for the child, causing them to make healthy choices when they are being influenced to make unhealthy ones.

Granted, life happens, and every person is different. Some children just go the wrong way, no matter how well loved they are. But this does not negate the reality, that when our family participates in and reflects the divine perichoresis, and is filled with love and grace, there is a strong bond of love which binds everyone together in love. There is a tolerance and respect which would not otherwise be there. Children find themselves motivated, for the most part, to do the right thing from a place inside. Love is an internal motivator which supersedes any other external motivator in its ability to create genuine unity.

I believe this is why the apostle Paul stressed the need for a husband to love his wife, and for parents to love their children. Paul’s culture taught men to rule their wives and to insist that women and children submit to their leadership. Authoritarian rulership and coercion in a family may create external obedience temporarily, but they often crush the hearts of children, foment rebellion in teens, and can eventually destroy people. I have seen and experienced the tragedy that results in such leadership. The broken hearts and minds it creates are a testimony to its ineffectiveness and destructiveness in the long run.

Love, however, creates a familial bond of unity, which motivates those involved to treat one another with respect and concern. Discipline—and here I mean training, not punishment—given in love and tempered with grace, enables children to learn to live within healthy boundaries, while giving them room to grow. In this type of environment there is freedom—freedom to be the people God created us to be, and freedom to treat each other with love and respect. Freedom goes both ways because it is bound up within God’s love.

I was speaking with Doug Johannsen yesterday, and he reminded me that a father, and a husband, is meant by God to be the source (read “head” in most translations) of this love within a family. He is to be the one who pours this love so abundantly over his wife and children they cannot help but love him back and love one another. He is to be the source of this love which binds the family together in unity. Why is this true?

Because this is how our heavenly Father so loves his Son in the Spirit. He loved him so much he gave him all of this which he made. And the Son, and the Father, so loved us, they created us and gave us everlasting life through Jesus in the Spirit, so we can live in the midst of this superabundant love both now and forever.

It is this love, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which is to be the basis on which our families are built. This love which he receives from the Holy Spirit enables a father and husband to love his wife and family with the same love which caused Jesus to lay down his life for humanity. And this love creates an environment in the home in which a family can live together in real unity.

This is the same love which we as single parents must draw upon to enable us to love our children and care for them when we are unable to fill the role of the missing parent. This love of God shed abroad in our hearts is the source of unity, love and grace in our family. And we can trust God to do in and through us what we cannot do on our own to care for, love and minister grace to our loved ones.

Loving Father, thank you for the great love you shower upon your Son in the Spirit, and that we participate in this, your superabundant love, through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the gift of your Spirit. Grant us the grace to live in loving communion with one another in our families, churches, and communities, in the same way in which you live in loving fellowship with your Son, and with us through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Eph 4:1–6 NASB

“Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity (lit. the uniting bond of perfection).” Col 3:14 NASB

Matters of the Heart

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by Linda Rex

There are some things in life we just don’t like doing, and not everyone shares the same dislike of doing certain things. For much of my life I haven’t liked washing dishes, probably because it was a household chore forced on me as a child and it involved washing an entire counter’s worth of dirty dishes. Today washing dishes is something I’ve learned to tolerate, and I thank God for my dishwasher all the time because it is such a blessing to me. I doubt I will ever grow to love the task of cleaning the grime off dishes, but I do remember on occasion to thank God I even have the dishes to wash and the food to wash off of them.

And that’s what got me to thinking. What about those things in life we just don’t like doing, but we know doing them is the right thing to do—something God wants us to do? We run up against these things all the time—it’s a part of our human existence. Sometimes we feel we don’t have the heart to do what we know we need to do. But maybe we’re wrong.

The Israelites stood on the shores of the Jordan River and Moses began to talk with them about the journey they had been on with their God, how he had created them and then redeemed them by bringing them out of slavery, and how he would bring them into their new land. And Moses gave them the directive God had placed in his mouth: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5)

The evidence of Israel’s travels through the wilderness show they did not and didn’t seem to be capable of truly loving the God who created and redeemed them. They seemed to always drift back towards their days in slavery or over into the idolatry of the nations they encountered. They definitely did not have the heart to obey God, much less love him wholeheartedly. If anything, their heart was turned away from God and not towards him.

There were times in my life where I felt it was monstrously unfair for God to expect Israel to love him with their whole heart when they weren’t capable of doing it. It seemed horribly unjust.

But as time has gone by, I have come to know God a little better. I have learned to look at these stories from a different perspective. In the context of this directive to Israel we hear Moses describing all the ways in which God had shown his love and faithfulness to them, and how he was going to continue to faithfully fulfill his covenant love relationship with them as they moved on into the promised land.

The basis of God’s request Israel love him wholeheartedly was within himself, in his love and faithfulness. It was not something they had to drum up on their own—which is what they kept trying to do. God had called them into relationship with himself, had given them all the ways in which they needed to live to fully and joyfully participate in that relationship. By his love and grace he would ensure their relationship with him would last and they would indeed love him with all their heart and soul and might.

As time went by, God sent prophets to Israel to call them back into their covenant relationship of love. We read in Hosea and other places of the heartache this nation continually caused God by their infidelities and indifference and outright rebellion against him. But God was faithful to them in spite of their unfaithfulness. God was loving and gracious to them in spite of their ingratitude and rejection of him. The prophets told the people one day God would give them a new heart and a new mind which would enable them to love their Redeemer with their whole hearts. He would make it possible for them to do what they were created to do—to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another.

This should be a comfort to you and to me. We know in our heart of hearts we are incapable of truly loving God and each other as we ought. All we have to do is listen to the daily news to understand how true it is—people cannot and do not love God wholeheartedly, much less love one another. Even the ones we expect to be truly loving people—pastors, preachers, teachers, caregivers—turn out to be just as selfish, greedy and cruel as the next person. And we see within ourselves the reality of our own inability to love God or others as we should. And it scares us.

It is important for us to see our capacity and desire to love God wholeheartedly comes from God himself and is not something we do under our own power or by our own efforts. It is all of grace.

The reason God came to earth in human form was so each of us could one day share in God’s very own capacity to love and be loved. In Jesus Christ we are each taken up through his life, death, resurrection and ascension into the very life and love of God himself. When the Father, through Jesus, sent the Spirit to humanity, he gave each of us the capacity to love with God’s love. He gave us the heart to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another. We have a new heart, a new mind and a new soul—we share in Christ’s capacity to truly love.

God is gracious and allows us to choose for ourselves what we will live out of—the broken and diseased heart which died with Christ, or the new heart bought and paid for and given to us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and in the gift of the Spirit. The evil one likes to keep us focused on the old dead, evil heart, and does his best to destroy the heart God created within us in Christ. He likes to distract us with all the old ways of being and doing, making us think we are incapable of loving God or others.

But nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ—in God we live and move and have our being. (Rom. 8:38-39; Acts 17:28) God’s love is as much a part of us as Christ is, for he shares fully in our humanity even now. The Spirit awakens us to faith in Christ. He gives us the capacity to be the loving people we are in Christ. He grows us up into Christ and enables us to love God wholeheartedly and to love others with Christ’s love. He works to change us, to transform our hearts by faith.

God does not ask us to do what he does not give us the capacity to do. He continually is the basis of our relationship with him, and he pours himself into us through Jesus in the Spirit so we can grow in our love for him and our love for one another. Our freedom to resist and reject his work within us is also a part of his gracious loving act, for he will not have robots in his family—only adopted, loving children who love him wholeheartedly out of a love which has its roots within himself, in the perfect perichoretic love which exists between the Father, Son and Spirit.

So this whole thing of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength is not a matter of our efforts, but rather a matter of faith—of trusting in the love and faithfulness of God and relying upon his gracious work in us through Jesus and by the Spirit to create within us a desire and willingness, and even a passion, to love God completely and entirely with a deep, everlasting love.

In a way, I suppose, it’s kind of like me putting the dishes in the dishwasher, throwing in the detergent and turning the dial to “normal”. All I’m doing is participating with the dishwasher in getting the dishes done. I don’t have to do them, I just have to bring them to the dishwasher and allow the dishwasher to do its work.

Thank God that he is not like a machine which breaks down and does only what I tell it to do. Instead he is a loving, compassionate Being who is faithful and has already taken care of everything through his Son and by his Spirit. I just get to be a part of what he’s doing. I can rest fully in him and trust he will give me the heart to love him wholeheartedly, and when I don’t, I can trust I’m already forgiven and accepted in Christ. Isn’t that just great? I just love that about him!

Thank you, God, that you never give us anything to do which you do not give us the capacity to do through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Do finish what you have begun in us—we trust you will enable us to love you wholeheartedly and follow you wherever you lead. Through Jesus and by your Spirit we pray, amen.

“And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’” Luke 10:27 NASB

“They shall be My people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me. I will rejoice over them to do them good and will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul.” Jeremiah 32:38–41 NASB

The Whole Message

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Honeysuckle on the fence
Honeysuckle on the fence

By Linda Rex

I recall when I was growing up being told by ministers the true gospel preached by Jesus was about the kingdom of God to be would be inaugurated when Jesus came back to earth after the great tribulation had occurred. I remember these men ridiculed the messages taught by mainstream Christian faiths, saying that the gospel preached by such churches wasn’t the true gospel but a false, misleading one.

Since that time, the Spirit has been gracious and has helped me see there was a lot of misleading information I took in and believed which I needed to reexamine. And when I did reexamine the gospel message Jesus and his disciples preached, I found that it wasn’t at all what I was being told it was. In fact, it was something entirely different.

For example, in Acts 4, Peter and John were put into prison because they were “teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” (Acts 4:2) Later when the Council threatened them and told them not to preach in Jesus’ name any longer, they replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19–20) In other words, they were telling people what they had witnessed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, not about some new kingdom, or some laws they were to live by, or some days they were to keep.

The apostle Paul, after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, “immediately … began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” (Acts 9:20) His message had to do with who Jesus was and what he did when he was here on earth. And whenever Paul made a defense in regards to why he was doing the ministry he was doing, he told who Jesus was and what he did, but also what Jesus had done in his life, and how Paul had been changed by his encounter with Jesus. The gospel he shared had to do with the life of Jesus, and how the living Jesus impacted his own life in a powerful way.

When Stephen was taken before the Council and was accused of speaking against the temple and the law, his defense did not involve preaching about some soon-coming king or kingdom. His defense involved telling God’s story—the story of how God worked with Abraham and his descendants to bring them into relationship with himself, and how they had over and over rejected his love and grace, and how in that same way they had rejected his Son Jesus Christ. Stephen died because he told God’s story—the story of God’s life with Israel and the Spirit’s work to bring Israel into a loving, obedient relationship with their covenant God through his Son Jesus Christ. (Acts 7)

When the high priest and the Sadducees put the apostles in prison out of jealousy because the crowds were being healed and delivered from evil spirits, we read an angel came and released them from prison. Then the angel told them, “Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life.” (Acts 5:20) And so they did what they were told. And they were found again in the temple preaching the “whole message of this Life”. The high priest and the Sadducees were upset not only because they were preaching about Jesus, his death and resurrection, but they were also angry because the power behind that message was being experienced through people being healed and delivered.

When Peter was sent for by Cornelius, he obeyed the will of the Spirit. Cornelius and his household were prepared to hear the word of the Lord from Peter—he was going to preach the message they needed to hear. And when he spoke, he began with God’s acceptance of all men, but then told them about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and he finished his message by telling them that all who believe in Jesus Christ receive forgiveness of sins. As they listened to this message, God poured out his Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his household—this was a transformational event in the life of the church.

Jesus called certain people to be eyewitnesses of his whole human existence. They had seen, heard and touched him. They knew he was both human and divine. They would truthfully tell “the whole message of this Life” they had experienced firsthand. As the apostle John wrote: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:1–3)

So part of this message which includes the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the good news we all have forgiveness available to us through him. We learn in this message about who Jesus is—the Son of God and the Son of man. We learn that in Jesus Christ we all died and rose again. This message includes God’s story—his life with humanity, with Israel and with his disciples, and with the Church through the ages—as God has interacted with, healed and restored and delivered people by his Holy Spirit. This “whole message of this Life” is so much more than just a message about some king and a kingdom or some rules to live by.

This “whole message of this Life” is life-giving because it is the Spirit who gives the words life. The good news of who Jesus is and what he has done and is doing is transformational because in Christ, we are all forgiven and are given new life. In Jesus Christ we have a hope and a future, no matter what we may be going through right now.

Just as Jesus has become a part of our daily life, he becomes a natural part of our conversation with others. The early persecuted church, “who had been scattered went about preaching [bringing the good news of] the word.” (Acts 8:2) Sharing the good news of Jesus became a part of their everyday life they took with them everywhere they went, no matter their circumstances. As we go about our daily lives, we tell others about who Jesus is and what he has done and is doing. We share with others the ongoing story of what God is doing to transform our lives and the world we are living in.

Even though we have not personally lived with Jesus or personally witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection, we each have our own story of how Jesus met with us and transformed our lives by his indwelling Spirit and his intervention in our lives. We can tell how our lives intersected with God’s life through Jesus and by his Spirit. All God asks us to do is to tell the story, to tell the “whole message of this Life.” Jesus and his Spirit will do the rest.

Holy Father, I pray by your Spirit you would enable us to share with others the “whole message” of your love for humanity expressed to us in the gift of your Son and your Holy Spirit. Empower us to speak with courage and conviction as we tell your story and our story, and the story of Jesus and his transforming and healing power through his life, death and resurrection. I pray more and more people would come to know and receive the forgiveness available to them through Jesus Christ. In his name, we pray. Amen.

“But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the gates of the prison, and taking them out he said, ‘Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life.’” Acts 5:19-20 NASB

“’It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.’” John 6:63 NASB

To Hire a Sheriff

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By Linda Rex

Good Friday: There was a time in my life where one of my favorite authors was Zane Grey. One reason I enjoyed his westerns was because he illustrated well both the beauty and depravity of the human heart and spirit. Granted, by modern standards, his writing may have been laborious and tedious at times. And I understand history was much more complex than what was described in the pages of his books. But the whole idea of humans taking on the adventure of settling in a new land and being transformed as they faced the dangers and challenges inherent with such a change has been inspiring and instructive to me.

One of the concerns wrestled with by inhabitants of the newly settled West was that of law and order. Former citizens of the Eastern seaboard took it for granted the average person was bound by an inherent need to do what was best for the community and to live by standards of honesty and decency. Having officers of the law available to enforce these expectations was assumed. But such individuals did not exist in the West in the early years. What did exist was the inner law, however misguided, of the hearts and minds of those venturing out into areas which were unsettled by those not native to America.

As small towns grew up, one of the settlers’ first items of business might have been to begin to enforce law and order. The citizens of these small towns would come together and agree to hire or elect a sheriff. These sheriffs usually weren’t picked because they were nice, friendly folks. Rather, they were almost always men who could draw a gun at lightning speed and track down and bring to justice evil men who preyed upon others. These sheriffs often were just as hard, cold and calculating as those men the townspeople were hoping to get rid of, but that was the price the townspeople were willing to pay in order to have law and order in their community.

If you were to drop down into the midst of one of these stories, you might find yourself standing in front of the general store, facing a ragged-looking pony. Looking up the street you’d see a tall, lean man standing quietly on the dusty road, his body tense, his guns low, and his hands hovering close by his holsters. He’d be intently staring up the road at something.

You’d lean a little to the left to look past the pony, and you’d see a couple of nasty looking fellows, both of whom are sporting wicked leers and heavy artillery on their belts. At this point, you’d decide you’d be much safer inside the general store, especially since all the other residents would have vacated the street several minutes ago.

Imagine at this point if instead of electing a tall, dark gunslinger for sheriff, the townspeople had hired Jesus Christ. Yes, I realize that even trying to imagine this possibility might cause excruciating mental torment, but please bear with me.

These two, twisted, violent men are well known in their community for the horrible things they have done to men, women and children, and for the wretchedness of their character and behavior. They are cold, calculating, and evil to the core. And they are facing a man who looks at them with eyes of compassion and understanding, but who is not wearing any form of law enforcement equipment. What would happen next?

I can’t imagine any author of Western novels creating such a storyline. The West wasn’t “won” by mild-mannered men in robes and sandals. Law and order wasn’t established by someone offering multitudes bread and fish, or by someone telling parables and healing the sick. This isn’t what we associate with the civilizing of early Western America. To even imagine this possibility creates a huge level of disbelief in our hearts and minds.

In the same way, the historical event of Good Friday stands out in my mind as an enormously unbelievable and countercultural event. It seems we as human beings refuse to accept the reality we are more inclined to resolve our issues through the application of force, violence and control than to resolve them by offering ourselves up in humility, service and sacrifice. To handle the depravity and brokenness of human nature by giving oneself over to be beaten, ridiculed and crucified just doesn’t make sense to us. Yet, this is what Jesus did.

God came to earth and we crucified him. It’s as simple as that. When Jesus Christ could have drawn upon all the power inherent within himself to execute deserved retribution on all who hated him, abused and crucified him, he instead offered himself up as a sacrifice. Even though God could have created law and order by forcing people to do everything the way he wanted it done, God gave us instead the freedom to choose and to make mistakes. And the Father even offered us his beloved Son, and we treated his Son shamefully, rejecting his most precious gift by destroying the One who came to save us.

But it was in that very effort of ours to destroy the One who was given to us God did his most amazing work. It was in our rejection of and crucifixion of Jesus Christ that God bound us to himself with inseparable cords of love. Through the resurrection, what was meant for death and destruction has become our salvation and redemption. This is God’s most amazing creation of all—a new humanity built in the midst of and out of the depths of our depravity, evil and brokenness. God said we were worth every bit of suffering and loss the Father, Son and Spirit had to experience in order to bring about his perfect end.

Unlike the perfect Zane Grey ending where the cowboy gets the girl and puts the criminals behind bars or under the gravestones in the local cemetery, God gives us a more perfect ending. He works it out so he has us, with him, for all eternity. He gets transformed, healed, renewed children to share his life and love forever. And in my humble opinion, that is the best possible ending to the story which includes the events of Good Friday. What more could we ask for?

Lord Jesus, I don’t understand how you could just stand there and let us do to you what we did. But you allowed us to do to you whatever we wanted—and it turns out we treated you shamefully, rejecting you and your love, and we tried to destroy the most precious gift your Father could have offered us. It is amazing how your Father took this very act and used it to bind us all to you in an unbreakable bond of love. Now we are yours, God, forever, in the grace offered us in you, Jesus. Thank you for your unfailing love and forgiveness, through Jesus Christ and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?’” John 18:11 NASB

Not Just a Taste

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by Linda Rex

Lent: One of the things my kids have always hated is the taste of coconut. I myself, having grown up in southern California and been exposed to a variety of tastes as a child, am quite fond of the taste of coconut. I enjoy the taste of pineapple and coconut on top of cottage cheese, and in piña colada yogurt. I like cake with coconut icing. But since my kids don’t care for coconut, I don’t usually use it in my cooking.

There was one time, though, when I had a very large bag of coconut which my mother had left in her fridge when she moved to Texas. I took it home and thought, however feebly, that perhaps I could make something with it so it wouldn’t go to waste. My initial attempt involved hiding it in no-bake chocolate cookies. At first my kids surprised me by eating them. But then they realized they had coconut inside. And from then on I had to eat the rest of the batch myself. Not that I minded. They were chocolate, after all.

The other day my daughter opened a box of chocolates someone gave her, picked a nougat out and bit into it. Her face screwed up and I just had to laugh. “Coconut?” I asked. She nodded and handed the piece to me. She still can’t stand the taste of coconut in any form.

Truthfully I believe we all have the same response when faced with death. None of us likes to taste death in any form, whether it is our own death, the death of someone close to us, the death of a relationship, the death of a community or business, or the death of a career. For us, as humans, death seems so final and devastating. It is an end, and such ends are unbearable.

We tend to approach death a lot like the way my kids approach coconut—with tight lips and a clenched jaw, and a refusal to even give it a taste. Death to us is anathema in any form, even when it’s hidden in something we like. Death is not something we embrace but something we reject, flee from, or despair in the midst of.

I believe this is one reason why Jesus by God’s grace came to “taste death for everyone.” Jesus experienced death in a wide variety of ways—not only the death of his body at his crucifixion, but also, for example, in the death of his close relationships and ministry when his disciples abandoned him at the end, and the death of the public acclaim for him that he experienced entering Jerusalem, which turned into the shout, “Crucify him!” His death on the cross was a collection of many little deaths that culminated in the end of his life as Son of God and Son of man.

Jesus tasted the fullness of death. His body was placed in a tomb and he laid there just as every human being lies in death when the life God gives by the Spirit leaves his or her body. His disciples believed it was all over. His family grieved his loss deeply. Death was effectively and completely a part of Jesus’ story from that day on.

There is nothing about death that Jesus is not familiar with. No matter how bad the taste, Jesus drank death to the last drop, all for our sake. He tasted death for everyone.

The thing is, Jesus’ purpose in tasting death for all of us was so we would have our taste buds changed. In other words, death would no longer have a hold on us or be for us such an offensive, devastating thing. Because of Christ, the apostle Paul said, death has lost its sting.

How can this be? The reason is because death is now so intimately connected with the resurrection. For you and me, death is not an end in and of itself. Death is merely the flipside to a new beginning. Instead of dreading death or running from death, because of Christ we can embrace death as God’s means of bringing about new life.

This doesn’t mean that death isn’t painful and doesn’t involve suffering. Death is still a difficult and heart-rending experience for us as human beings.

The reason death hurts so much is because we were not created for death. We were created for life. God meant for us to eat only of the tree of life, not to experience the consequences of eating of the wrong tree. Death is the result of our choices. Our brokenness and the brokenness of creation mean that death is a part of the human story now.

But Jesus embraced our death in himself. He included himself in our story and he turned death on its head. Death and resurrection are now inseparable twins—in Christ God has made all things new. This means in our loss and grief, we have someone who shares it with us. And we have hope for life beyond death. There is so much more to our human existence than just this!

So really, when facing death, all God is asking of us is merely to taste it—for in tasting death, we find that God in Christ has given us victory over it. If we are facing the death of a relationship, we turn to Christ. In the midst of this death, as we turn to Christ, we will find our new life—whether healing of the relationship or the possibility of new, healthier relationships. The same holds true for all the other little and big deaths we face during our lives.

At some point we have to accept that the human experience is going to include the experience of death of some kind. How we experience death is going to depend upon our willingness to align ourselves with the truth of what Jesus has done in tasting death for everyone. We can see death as an end in itself or as it really is, merely the flipside to a new beginning.

The truth is, we died with Christ and we rose with Christ. And when he comes, we will share in his glory. This is our hope and our assurance—thank you, Jesus.

Holy Father, thank you for your amazing love. You did not leave us in our brokenness and lostness, bound by chains of death. You gave us your Son, who by your Spirit tasted death for all of us, so we could be free to truly live in you. What a blessing and gift! We have new life in Jesus! Thank you. In your Name we pray, amen.

“But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” Hebrews 2:9 NASB

Sharing the Same Earth

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By Linda Rex

Lent: This morning I am sitting in the office of the social security administration, waiting to finish up some business regarding my mother’s estate. As I sit in the hard, plastic chair, I look around me. People of all shapes, sizes, colors and ages are all waiting too, anxiously eyeing the board to see if they will be helped next.

It seems all of us waiting have a common concern this morning—having our particular need met by a government agency staffed with human beings like us. Each of us sitting here has our own unique story, and our own special problem we need help with. We each want to be heard, and we each want to receive a solution to our own dilemma.

At a window nearby a lady raises her voice. She is frustrated because she is having to state her personal affairs out loud because, she thinks, the agent won’t read her paperwork. The agent continues to quietly help her, doing her best to understand the lady’s situation. Unfortunately, there are laws and restrictions that prevent the agent from being able to do what the lady wants done, so the lady becomes angry and leaves.

When we are out in the midst of life, interacting with others, we come up against people who are very different from us. Our uniqueness meets up with their uniqueness. This can cause friction, misunderstandings and/or pain. Or it can be an opportunity for one to help or strengthen or bless the other.

I recall a conversation I had last night where I was owning up to my tendency to be more spontaneous and easy-going than I am organized and controlled about my affairs. When I come up against someone who is very precise, disciplined and organized, I can drive them crazy if I don’t make some effort to be considerate of our differences. It is important to make room for one another and not to expect everyone to be the same as we are.

We can get so bent out of about our differences that we miss the most important realization of all: even though we each have unique stories and ways of being, we also at the same time share a common humanity. We need to remember that all of us come out of the same earth as Adam. The same elements which composed his body are those which exist in ours. The same Spirit who breathed life into him breathes life into each one of us. And the same God who created and sustains each of us came and lived as a human being just like each one of us.

As I sat last night and watched the preview of the new movie “Young Messiah”, I was touched again by the realization of the humanity of Jesus as a young child. I have so many questions about what it was like for him: What was it like to be moved from one country to another as his family traveled from Egypt and settled in Nazareth? How was he able to grow up and come to a realization of who he was, while at the same time dealing with Satan’s constant efforts to kill and destroy him? When did Jesus realize that he was not just Joseph’s child, but was the Son of God? How did he feel when his stepfather Joseph passed away and he became the leader of his family in his place?

The battle Jesus fought in his humanity began at birth. I’m sure the angels were kept very busy watching over him as he grew up. When I think of all the children around the world today who lose their innocence and/or their lives on a daily basis due to man’s inhumanity to man, it is a miracle indeed that Jesus, living in the Roman Empire, grew up to be the man he was. But having been a child, experiencing the things he experienced, Jesus could with a warm and tender heart hold children near and bless them when he was an adult. He knew what it was like to grow up in a dark, scary and dangerous world.

I have a hard time believing as a child Jesus was someone who took everything seriously and walked about preaching and praying all the time. I’m more inclined to believe he reveled in his heavenly Father’s creation—running through the fields, wading in the streams and chasing after the butterflies just as my children did when they were little. I’m also inclined to believe Jesus enjoyed living and so he laughed, joked with his friends, and played just like you and I do.

Talking and thinking about Jesus’ humanity does not diminish him in any way. If anything, it makes him more amazing and worthy of our adoration and praise. Through Jesus we can begin to find a commonality with God rather than just a separateness and uniqueness. Humanity is completely other than God, but God took on humanity in Jesus Christ so that we would be and are connected with God in the very core of our being—God in human flesh, transforming humanity from the inside out so that we can dwell forever with he who is completely other than us.

Jesus was not just a vague human being without distinction. He was born and raised in a specific culture and in a specific area of the world. He was a particular race and a particular gender. This does not mean that he did not identify with others different than himself, but rather that no matter who we are in the specific way of our being, Jesus was that for us. He identified with us in our unique situation, in our unique time, place and circumstance. Because he understood the context of his specific life, he understands the context of each of ours.

Unlike the agent sitting in the booth waiting to hear another person’s concerns, Jesus is present and able to hear each and all of our concerns at every moment because he God. And he is present and able to understand and act in our best interests in every situation because he has experienced our humanity and shares it even now.

Wherever we are and in whatever situation we may find ourselves, we can trust we are not there all by ourselves. God has come through Christ and in the Spirit to live in human hearts. He is working to complete Christlikeness in each of us, because Christlikeness is our perfected, glorified humanity which Christ lived out here on earth which is poured out into each of us by the Holy Spirit.

We have nothing to fear, because whatever road we are on, Christ has walked it and will walk it with us all the way through to death and resurrection. We don’t have to get anxious that God won’t call our number in time—he’s got each of us covered—he knows us intimately. We don’t have to get upset if we aren’t helped immediately—he’s already working in our situation even though we may not see or recognize this is true. And we can trust that he understands the details and will do what’s best for us, no matter how things may appear to us at the moment.

Holy Father, grant that we each might be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus so that we may all with one voice glorify you. May we accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us, so you might be glorified in us. [Rom. 15:5-7] Thank you that before time began you chose to adopt us as your children through your Son Jesus Christ, and even when we were so terribly human and unlike you, you became like us so we could participate in your divine nature. [Eph. 1:5-6; 2:4-7] Grant us the grace to love one another as you have loved us, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:19–22 NASB