By Linda Rex
I was reflecting back with a friend of mine to the time when my kids were teens and preteens. Those years of parenting can be very challenging. Growing up in this society is not simple—it is very difficult and can even be very dangerous. Youth are surrounded with the means to derail their lives and to make catastrophic decisions which could destroy any possibility of attaining their full potential in this life.
Young people today grow up watching, reading, and hearing many things which tell them they can be anything they want to be if they just work at it and try hard enough. The reality they experience as they get older often is, they can’t. There is a great chasm between possibilities and abilities caused by the way we function as adults in this culture. We grow up believing that if we get a college degree our future is secure, but then find ourselves with a wagonload of debt, and no one will hire us. The disillusionment and disappointment which comes with this creates depression and discouragement.
I’m grateful for the privileges and opportunities I was given as a young person. Even though I worked my way through college, I could not have done so if the college hadn’t provided a work program which made it possible. If I hadn’t had parents who supported me and helped me when I found myself in trouble, I would have had a very difficult road to travel on my own. I was very blessed—many others have not been so blessed.
The reality is, youth and young people are not meant to have to travel the road to maturity on their own under their own power. That may be what they prefer—we love our independence as teens and young adults. But the truth is, and I believe most understand this, youth and young adults need a safe place to come to when life falls apart—a place where they are accepted and beloved in spite of their shortcomings and failures and a place where they are called up to be the best that they can be in Christ.
Home can and should be this place. But what if there is no home for them to come to and find acceptance, comfort, and caring, to be challenged to grow and find renewal? I believe God meant the body of Christ to be this place—to be the home away from home for each and every person.
We don’t read much about Jesus’ life and experiences as he grew from childhood to adulthood. There is merely the story about his family visiting Jerusalem for a festival and Jesus staying behind to study at the temple.
Did Jesus ever disobey his parents? I don’t think he did. But in this particular instance, he did what they did not expect him to do. He was at the age of accountability—that stage in life where he was assuming responsibility for his own decisions. This is the tough stage for parents who want to tell their children what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. This where parents have to back off and let their children try it out on their own, to make mistakes as they grow.
And it can be hard to watch young people make decisions we would not agree with. Jesus’ parents had to listen to him tell them that he was responsible to God not to them—he needed to be in his Father’s house, rather than Joseph’s house. That had to hurt. But it was the truth. And it took courage and humility for Christ to confront his parents in this way.
But it is also interesting to note, that Jesus did not disrespect or disobey Mary and Joseph at all in doing this. And after this conversation, he went home to Nazareth with them, and subjected himself to their authority. He honored and obeyed his parents, even though he was his own person and knew he was the Son of the Father. Just as the Son of God is of the same essence as the Father yet submits himself to his heavenly Father, Jesus Son of Mary, submitted himself to his human parents while on this earth.
Within this family relationship Jesus grew “…wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” He went through the same process youth and young people go through today to grow up and develop into an adult. Even though the culture was much different than ours today, there were still challenges and distractions which could have kept Jesus from fulfilling his calling and purpose. But he weathered them all and gained the inner strength and capacity to face the challenges he faced.
The next time we see Jesus, we find him being baptized by John, and then being driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to face the most difficult challenge of his life—an encounter with evil himself. What had prepared Jesus for this? Who taught him that fasting and prayer would prepare him for this battle? Who taught him the Scriptures so he would have an arsenal for his warfare against Satan?
A lot of times we tend to have magical thinking about this—he was the Son of God, so of course he knew the Scriptures and prayed. But he was human—fully human. He wasn’t living out of his divinity, but out of his humanity as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jesus must have expended serious effort in his study of the Scriptures and in prayer and fasting long before this encounter. If he knew he had to be in his heavenly Father’s house, then he must have known that, like you and me, he needed to do the things which grew his relationship with his Abba while he was on earth. No doubt, he studied the Scriptures and memorized them like every other Jewish boy his age, and learned the prayers of his people and prayed them.
We don’t know much about Joseph, and only a little about Mary, but the evidence of Jesus’ life shows the results of their parenting. And indeed, perhaps even in spite of their parenting, Jesus became all he was meant to be as the Messiah of his people. Their home was a place for Jesus to grow “… in wisdom, stature, and in favor with God and man.” We participate with God in Christ when we provide such a home for our children, and when we provide such a home away from home—the church—for youth and young people.
We can also participate with God in the well-being and development of our youth and young people by providing relationships with those God places in our lives. We share with them our journey with Jesus, modeling for them what it looks like to live in a deep, meaningful relationship with God in Christ by the Spirit, and how to deal with the difficult things of life, the disappointments, and even the successes of life. We demonstrate the grace of God at work in us in our authenticity and integrity of being as we grow up in Christ, as fail, as we succeed, and as we struggle.
We can become, or provide, a safe place for youth and young people as they go through life, enabling them to see something beyond what this culture throws at them in its media and merchandising. As we experience and live within the truth of God’s love and grace, we share it with them, and enable them to also experience and live in this truth. When youth and young people feel at home with us, they can also learn to feel at home with Jesus, and reap the benefits of such a relationship as they mature.
Thank you, Abba, for enabling us to see and learn what it is like to grow up in a family through your Son Jesus Christ. We thank you that by your Spirit you create true family, the body of Christ. Enable us as youth and young adults to grow up and reflect clearly your image as loving and gracious God, and enable us as adults to provide safe, caring, and challenging places for youth and young people to grow. Draw and bind us together, making a true home which will last forever, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.’ And He said to them, ‘Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?’ But they did not understand the statement which He had made to them. And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Luke 2:48-52 NASB
By Linda Rex
Outside the house next to our patio door sit two flower pots. Last summer we moved some tiger lilies out of a flowerbed and into these pots because the local mole had decided he had a hankering for flower bulbs and managed to eliminate most of them we had planted earlier in the year.
Even though we planted the tiger lily bulbs in the flowerpots, we assumed they were too far gone to even come up. But this spring they began to grow and after quite some time they put on buds. We were delighted when the bright orange blossoms opened fully—they are quite stunning when in full bloom.
In comparison with a tiger lily, the bloom of an avocado tree is quite tiny and unimpressive. If one were to look at an avocado flower, one would have to get up really close in order to even see it. It has six tiny white or green petals surrounding an intricate white and yellow center. And yet, when the flower has done its work properly, it produces a seed the size of a walnut enclosed within a thick layer which we consume as fruit. The entire avocado can be bigger than the size of a human fist—a far cry from the tiny flower it came from.
The size and beauty of a flower may be large and glorious, but this is not what determines what type of fruit it produces. Nor does it determine whether or not it produces fruit which matures in such a way as to produce seeds. Some flowers produce fruit which is seedless—a natural process which botanists and producers have taken advantage of in order to provide us with such produce as seedless grapes and seedless watermelons.
Plants come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the “fruit”—this word includes nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Fruit from a plant may mature beyond the state any of us would be willing to consume, but for many plants, this is what is necessary for the seed to fully ripen so when it is put in the ground it will produce a new plant. We often consume what is produced before it is fully mature—corn on the cob is a good example of this. In order to plant corn, the corn kernel has to ripen completely and then dry—only then is it mature enough to be used as seed for planting. But dried corn kernels are quite hard to chew and they’re not very tasty either.
A lot of what I’ve shared here is common knowledge for a farmer, botanist, or master gardener. They understand the process by which a plant reproduces and how to work with seeds, plants, and flowers to produce the best crop possible. It is interesting that Jesus, our Master Gardener, often used the process of planting, growing, and harvesting crops in order to talk about himself and the kingdom of God.
In one parable, Jesus used seed to represent the Word of God. He was explaining the different ways in which the Word of God was planted and the results of each scenario:
“Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” Luke 8:11-15 NASB
It seems that the problem with producing quality fruit lies not with the seed, but with the soil it lands on. The Word of God always produces a result—it is fruitful—there’s no doubt about that. But the ground which receives the seed can be harsh and unreceptive, or provide little room for the roots to grow, or be so filled with weeds that a new plant can’t grow and thrive.
If we were to consider this parable for a bit, we might see that the point of putting the seed in the ground is not just to have pretty flowers. Flowerbeds are lovely and I personally enjoy a garden filled with colorful blooms. But this was not the point of this parable—the focus is on the seed and what the seed was to produce—more seed. This means each seed needs to produce a plant which will grow to the place it flowers, it produces fruit, and the fruit matures to the point that it produces seed.
Seeds come in all shapes and sizes, and travel all over by a variety of means. Seeds are not meant to stay on the plant, but to be spread to new places. We experience the reality of this when we find oak trees growing in our pansy bed or an apple tree coming up in the vegetable garden.
When we hear the Word of God—the good news of God’s love for us expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ, it is meant to take root in our hearts by faith. The Word of God, the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, works transform our hearts and lives. We open ourselves up to the work of the Spirit in our walk of faith and begin to mature as followers of Jesus Christ. Our lives begin to reflect the Word of God at work within us. Like beautiful blossoms on a plant, we glow with the glory God created us to bear—the image of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This flowering is not the end of the story though. We are meant to go even farther and mature into seed-bearing plants. Our lives and words are to be a testimony to Christ. In other words, the life-giving Word is carried to new places and planted in new ground—new hearts—because we have become mature seed-bearing plants. Jesus said as we go, we are to make disciples. Making disciples, sharing the Word of God with others, is to be a natural by-product of our spiritual growing up in Christ.
The environment in which the Word of God exists within us is critical in this process. Do we allow ourselves to be deceived by a word other than that which given to us in Jesus Christ? Do we allow ourselves to be tempted by other things which supplant the Word of God? Do we allow ourselves to be so absorbed in the cares and pleasures of this life that we suffocate the Word of God? All of these are ways in which we disrupt or hinder the process of spiritual growth God meant for us to participate in.
The healthier alternative is to receive the Word with an “honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” The Word of God sinks deep roots in the soil of our heart as we practice spiritual disciplines which open us up to the work of the Spirit within us. The Word of God can transform our lives and hearts as we obey the Spirit’s inner prompting to put away our idols and distractions and focus wholly on Christ. We make space for God to work by making sure we are not preoccupied with the cares and pleasures of this life.
And we are not satisfied with just the external trappings of spiritual growth. It’s easy to look as though we are a stunning example of spiritual maturity. But the proof is when what God has done and is doing in us is duplicated in the lives of those around us. When the Word of God begins spreading into the hearts and lives of those around us, then we know we are being fruitful, and that God’s Word is living and active, taking root in many new hearts and lives.
Thank you, Lord, for planting your Word in our hearts. By faith, may we allow your Word to grow and develop, transforming our hearts and lives in such a way that your Word may be planted anew in others hearts and lives as well. May we be productive plants for your glory, through Jesus our Lord and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Luke 8:14 NRSV
By Linda Rex
I was chatting with my son this morning and I was talking about how God has always taken care of us as a family. “Even when I was only making $6.50 an hour,” I said. “He’s always taken care of us. I’ve always tried to put God first in my finances…”
He interrupted me. “You’re not drifting into that health-and-wealth gospel stuff, are you?” he asked, amused. I laughed. “No, but it probably was starting to sound like it.”
I was reminded how easily we can slip into the cause-and-effect manner of thinking which we prefer as humans. We like to be sure God is going to do what we want in every situation, and so we come up with the perfect plan to make sure he does. We’d like to believe if we always pay our tithes off the gross and give generously to the poor and other charities, then God will always make sure we are taken care of. We hope if we always eat the right thing and drink clean water and do a good job of exercising and staying in shape, we will never develop cancer or die of a heart attack.
Doing things this way takes all the guesswork out of our relationship with God. In fact, we don’t have to even get into any of the messy stuff of dealing with our false motives or bad attitudes. As long as we’re doing the “right” thing, we’re in good with God and we have no reason to expect any issues in our life.
Of course, as we grow in our spiritual maturity in Christ, I would like to hope we get to the place we recognize this isn’t the way God works. Indeed, he seems at times to do the exact opposite of what we expect him to do in certain situations. And we can get pretty bent out of shape about it if we are not careful. It seems God likes to remind us about who is the Lord of the universe, and it’s not us. And he also likes to remind us even when it seems like everything is falling apart, he can still take it and work it all out for the best.
The real issue here is God’s real nature is relational, and all he does with us as human beings is with this relationship in mind. To live in the Triune relationship is to live in a relationship in which there is uniqueness and equality of Personhood in oneness of Being.
We are created in the image of this God, called into relationship with this God, and embraced in the midst of our turning away from this relationship in and through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the gift of the Spirit, God works to bring us fully into the Triune embrace in such a way we know we share in Christ and we begin to intentionally participate in God’s love and life.
The thing is, this is a relationship we are called into and created for. And within this relationship we have been given great freedom. God has freed us from sin and death so we may live forever in the true freedom which exists in God’s being—a freedom to truly be who God created us to be—children of God who love their Abba with all their being, and who love their neighbor as themselves. This is the true freedom Christ won for us—to live out by the Spirit our true humanity which is hidden with Christ in God.
This freedom given to us by our Creator and Sustainer is what we wrestle with as human beings. On the one hand we like being able to do what we want, when we want, and how we want. We want to call the shots in this universe, while having God take care of us and give us everything we want when we want it and how we want it.
We live, if we are honest with ourselves, too often as if we are our own little gods, not realizing that such freedom is a false freedom. It is a lie—and whatever it is we have chosen which is not in within the truth of our being as God’s children will in the end enslave us and consume us, and without God’s intervention, may even eventually destroy us.
And these things we choose are not always the vices most of us easily acknowledge as being wrong or unhealthy. The worst choices we make are the most deceiving—the choice to objectify God and one another, the choice to put our trust in money, people, and other things rather than in God alone, or the choice to try to control God, or even one another, by the things we do or say—acting as though we can change the way God or others behave if we just act correctly or speak perfectly. We do our best manipulate, use, manage, and/or control God and one another, rather than respecting each one’s personhood and honoring him or her as the person he or she is.
If I choose to honor God with my finances by tithing, for example, by giving 10% off my gross income, that is a good thing to do as an expression of my love for God. I am free to tithe or not tithe, and no doubt, if I genuinely wish to bless God by tithing, he will be pleased by my heart of gratitude and generosity. But tithing does not obligate God in any way to make sure my bills are paid or I have money for a new car. It demonstrates a heart of devotion and trust toward God but it does not cause God to do anything in return. The cause-and-effect rule does not apply.
My experience in my relationship with God, however, has been when I was making next to nothing and felt convicted of the need to continue to tithe in spite of my poverty, God honored that and somehow always made sure I had what I needed. I did not control or manipulate God by my giving—but I did express my genuine heart of devotion and commitment to God through my giving, and I found myself being blessed and helped by God in the midst of my poverty.
I remember one ongoing conversation with God expressed my anxiety about the bills which I thought I couldn’t pay. Anxiety in itself demonstrates a lack of faith in my Abba, and I have struggled with this over and over—it’s one of those subtle yet encroaching sins. But God merely would remind me to write down my needs and to ask him to take care of them. That is a relational thing, not a cause-and-effect thing. It is an act of trust. I felt compelled by the Spirit to do write down my needs and give them to God, I obeyed God and did it, and God responded by hearing and answering my prayers. It began with God and ended with God, and I got to be in the midst of it and be blessed in the process.
Looking back, I know too often in my life I thought I had to do this or do that other thing in order to be blessed by God or experience his good will towards me. In reality, God’s will toward me was already good, and he was looking out for me when I didn’t even realize it. He intervened in so many situations, and I never realized what was going on until later, if at all, and was amazed by his tender love and concern.
What I have learned is God is love and God is faithful. And we are held in his love and grace, He is always at work, no matter what is going on, bringing us to a place of redemption and healing. We are free to make choices, and God allows us to experience the joy or pain of those choices. But he is ready and willing at any time to embrace us when we come running and are ready to participate in making choices his way, in the way which best expresses our true humanity as God’s beloved children.
Dear Abba, thank you for your faithful love and gracious provision for our needs each and every day, whether we realize it or not. Thank you for holding us in your love and grace, and that your heart toward us is good and full of compassion. Grant us the grace to live in the true freedom which is ours in your Son and by your Spirit so our lives and ways of being are a true expression of your nature and Name as Father, Son, and Spirit. In your Name we pray, Amen.
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.” 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 NASB
by Linda Rex
I was sitting by the pool one day chatting with a colleague about kids and life when the conversation drifted, as it often does in such cases, into the topic of childrearing. I often feel like I have an unpopular view on this topic since I prefer to approach childrearing through the portal of grace. Because when grace comes into play, things can get really messy, and most people are uncomfortable with the chaos that comes with the mess.
Personally I think we tend to forget that our human condition is, at its base, pretty messy. Humanity, with its laws and governments and programs and institutions, is constantly trying to cope with and fight the chaos that comes with our proclivity to sin, corruption and selfishness. Allowing people the freedom to do whatever they wish whenever they wish however they wish creates anarchy and ultimately, self-destruction. Or does it?
Often parents and adults alike can be more concerned with having order and control than they are with allowing children to be free to be creative and to learn by failing. It’s embarrassing when a child is less than perfect in public, especially when the expectations are high and we want to impress everyone with the glory and goodness of our children and our family. When our child starts screaming in the supermarket and everyone turns to look, the question we can ask at that moment is: Am I embarrassed for myself and worried about everyone’s opinions, or am I concerned about the well-being of my child? For our response at that moment is crucial.
When children are first born, we invest ourselves in them, I hope, by pouring into them love, affection, and attention. We have our own ways of dealing with their need for diaper changes, bedtime stories, and play time. We have a profound influence on their personality, attitudes and approach to life and to freedom, for this is the time we begin to set appropriate boundaries for them. And we begin to give them the freedom they need to learn and to be creative within those boundaries.
If we never give our little children boundaries such as a bedtime or respect for elders, then they can begin to assume that they are free to be the lord of their little universe—a false belief that isn’t healthy. That’s because there is only one Lord of the universe, and he doesn’t share that title with anyone. He is the only Being who is truly free, and even his freedom is freely expressed within the boundaries of his perfect love, a love that is one and the same as his Being. All of us as human beings need to understand that our freedom only exists within the confines of God’s freedom, and our freedom is always and ever meant to be lived out within the confines of God’s love and lordship.
Then there also comes a time when a child outgrows his or her boundaries and begins to chafe at the limits. At this point a parent can begin to tighten their control and suffocate their child by restricting them even more, or they can begin to free their child from restrictions so they can develop greater maturity and self-control. Whether or not a parent can easily do this often depends on their ability to influence their children, which is often determined by the depth and quality of the relationship they’ve built with them over the years. And it depends on the parents’ ability to cope with chaos and mess. And how they handle that has a lot to do with how well they understand and have themselves experienced grace.
Grace is essential to any human development because it provides the freedom to mess up and to be less than perfect. A child falls a lot before he ever comes to understand how to walk. A child has many messy faces and bibs before she learns to get the spoon of food into her mouth without spreading it all over herself and everything else first. This is all a part of our existence as human beings. We all go through the process of growing up and experience the mess that goes with it.
But when a child is free to mess up, that means that they can also be embarrassing to parents, or irritating, or even infuriating. They can create havoc in relationships by telling the wrong story at the wrong time. They can isolate us from neighbors by climbing fences to steal apples off of trees. At what point do we draw the line? And that’s where I have to say—it depends on who is the parent and who is the child. Each person and family is unique. That’s the way God made us. And we each, in relationship with God and with each other, grow up in Christ to the full maturity of Christ in our own way. There is no specific formula, ritual or program that works best in every situation.
Because just as kids grow up by messing up, learning from their messes, and developing maturity over time, the same is true of each of us as adults. Some of us are still trying to learn the basics we were never taught by our parents about the simple boundaries of love and respect. Others of us are learning that the apples on the other side of the fence aren’t really worth the trouble of stealing. And others of us are still tripping over our feet and falling, because we haven’t learned how to walk by faith rather than by sight. It’s all of grace.
I’m personally thankful that God is not a strict, controlling parent who is unforgiving of our faults and failures. He does what he can through our human institutions and governments to try to give us boundaries when we need them (and often we don’t need the boundaries we tend to create). But he gives us great freedom as well. I’m grateful he gives us room to grow, and even allows us to spit in his face on occasion without slapping us down. And most of all, he gives us Jesus, to share our humanity and to, by the Spirit, live his life within us and to transform us into his nature and way of being. He offers us Christ’s perfected humanity in our place. And that’s true grace and love.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for being the perfect parent, and for parenting us with such grace and love. Thank you for nurturing us and mothering us as we grow up in Christ. May we each be as gracious with one another and with our children as you are with us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Start with God—the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning. Pay close attention, friend, to what your father tells you; never forget what you learned at your mother’s knee. Wear their counsel like flowers in your hair, like rings on your fingers.” Proverbs 1:7–9 MSG