By Linda Rex
February 17, 2021, ASH WEDNESDAY—As a congregation, we have been seeking God’s face, participating as a group in prayer and fasting. Ash Wednesday inaugurates the Lenten season, a season of preparation for Holy Week when we celebrate the last supper, Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection. During this season, many of us will choose to fast in some way, whether by ceasing to eat certain foods, or stopping the use of certain items, or restricting our participation in certain activities.
It is good to participate in spiritual disciplines such as fasting and prayer. But the question we need to attend to is, why are we doing it? How are we doing it? And what do we hope to gain from such an activity?
When we practice the spiritual disciplines—and there are a wide variety of disciplines we can choose to practice—we must remember that we do not do them to try to get God’s attention or earn his love. Praying more, studying the Bible and memorizing scriptures, and going to worship services do not earn us brownie points with God—he gladly receives our devotion to him, but it is not necessary to his happiness. Neither does practicing spiritual disciplines alter his love for us. God loves us apart from our actively seeking his face—he sent us Jesus long before we ever thought to say a single prayer.
However, there are times when we acutely feel the distance between us and God. Aren’t spiritual disciplines helpful to bring us closer to God? Absolutely, but not in the way we often seem to think they do. They do not change God’s mind or heart toward us but rather, they bring about a change in us toward God and others. What spiritual disciplines do is open us up to the work God wants to do in us by his Holy Spirit. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, meditation, service, humility, and even self-care and care of creation, are ways of placing ourselves in God’s presence and inviting him to do whatever he wants to do in us and in our lives.
There is a distinction we must observe between simply being pious and devout for the sake of trying to move or control God and others, and sincerely laying ourselves out before God in open submission and surrender to his will. Doing the first means performing actions which merely give people the impression of our being good and holy while doing very little to bring about healing and wholeness in us or in our relationships with others. The second is profoundly different, for it is a deep personal interaction with God that can be life-changing, and can move us to begin to live in new ways, offering ourselves to God in whole-hearted love and obedience that is demonstrated by loving our neighbors and ourselves as we ought.
Through the prophet Isaiah God took his people to task for doing their humble fasting to be noticed by God. The reason was because in the midst of their religious practices, they were still mistreating people, neglecting the poor and needy, and not caring for their own families. Jesus himself took the religious leaders, who were so pious, to task for doing these things as well. What good is all our religious ritual and practices if we are unwilling to actually love those people who are already in our lives?
Sadly, it is often we as followers of Jesus who are the worst at being critical and condemning of one another. We are most often the ones who are guilty of deceit, denial, sexual promiscuity, greed and gluttony. We cannot get along with one another, it seems—there are so many things we disagree on. And so often we refuse to allow others the freedom of being guided by the Spirit in some direction that is different than the way he is guiding us.
As a congregation, we have had many opportunities to serve and help those who are poor, needy, and homeless, along with those who were simply struggling to get by. Let us not lose heart in our service to those God places in our lives—we have a calling and a gift, a grace to share with each one. In our seeking after God, our following Jesus, let us allow the Spirit to move in our hearts and minds, giving us Abba’s heart for each of his children. Let us continue to open up our hearts to receive his love and grace that we might share the good news of Jesus with others.
The Word of God took on our humanity, to share in our struggles, so that through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, he might bring us up to share life with him now and forever. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul enumerated a great number of ways in which he and those in ministry with him suffered and struggled as they shared the good news with others (2 Cor. 5:20b–6:10) In Christ and in Paul, we see the willingness to simply go to whatever ends were necessary to share the good news of God’s love.
Paul tells his readers, “Don’t receive the grace of God in vain.” There is a cost to the good news of Jesus Christ—he gave up the glories of heaven to become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What a precious gift of grace! With this gift in mind, our participation in spiritual disciplines arises, not from a sense of neediness or desperation, but from a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, an appreciation for the gracious gift of eternal life we have been given in Jesus. And our lives will reflect our understanding and appreciation for the gift God gave to us in Christ.
Drawing close to God, then, by practicing spiritual disciplines becomes an expression of thanksgiving, and an opening up of ourself in grateful worship and praise to do whatever God’s will may be in our lives. God has given us so much—so our fasting and prayer, our worship and service, and other disciplines become a laying down of ourselves, a response of love and appreciation to the God who has loved us so thoroughly and so well. The result of genuine spiritual disciplines then will be an even greater desire to share with others what has so freely been given to us and a life which is a fuller expression of Christlikeness, in which pouring ourselves out in service to others is our daily practice.
Dear Abba, thank you for your gift of your Son Jesus Christ and your Spirit. Open us up more fully to you and renew in us a passion for your will and your ways. Give us your mind and heart so that our lives more fully reflect your goodness and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. …
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness
And your gloom will become like midday.” Isaiah 58:(1–12) 3–4, 9–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
August 2, 2020, PROPER 13—So many news reports today focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, the related economic and unemployment troubles, as well as the ongoing racial tensions around this country. We have experienced powerful emotional responses to the news and social media coverage of these situations—fear, anger, frustration, sadness. It seems that we are being bombarded on all sides with every reason to lose hope and give ourselves over to fear and anxiety.
I have no doubt that this is encouraged and inspired by the father of lies who seeks only to kill, steal, and destroy. And whether we want to admit it or not, we are responsible for our choices to walk apart from the One who would gladly intervene to heal, restore, and help. Whether we like to hear it or not, blaming God for all this isn’t truthful, nor is it helpful. If anything, we need to believe that underneath all of our messy lives still lies the everlasting arms of a loving Savior.
It would be healing, I believe, to take the time to contemplate the manner of Savior we do have. If we had a God who understood what it means to suffer and grieve, and who cares about us, that would provide some comfort and encouragement when life gets tough. We read the testimony of witnesses in the Bible who say that the Word of God was sent to us, to live in our humanity and experience life as we do. This God/man Jesus Christ walked the dusty roads of Palestine, ate and drank with people from all walks of life, and bore the rejection and ridicule of those who should have welcomed him.
He had a relative named John, who was called by God to prepare the way for his coming. John preached in the wilderness, and baptized those who responded to his call to repent and be baptized. Jesus himself came to him to be baptized for the sake of all humanity, and John, under protest, did as Jesus asked. Later, John had the courage to speak the truth about the king’s immoral behavior, and ended up in prison.
Both men were obedient to the call of God on their lives. When Jesus heard that John had been beheaded by the king, he was profoundly impacted by the news. His heart was filled with compassion and grief for John, possibly some concern about his own path towards a tragic death, and he knew the only way he could deal with any of this was by taking it to his heavenly Father. He went to find a secluded place to spend time with his Abba.
But the people followed him. They were looking for a savior, a deliverer—someone to help them and heal them. When Jesus saw them, his heart went out to them. He was filled with compassion, and healed the sick people who came to him. Even though what he needed as a human was time alone with God to heal and prepare for his future, he took time to help those who sought him out. He ministered to others even though he desired to be ministered to by his Father.
In Jesus we see a deep compassion—an other-centered love which placed the needs of those around him above his own needs. Jesus knew the Source of his strength, wisdom, and power, and was wanting to be renewed and refreshed in his Father’s presence. But he also understood the cry of those about him who needed love, healing, and forgiveness. He knew this was the Father’s heart that he was expressing toward them. Every act of healing and love came straight from his Father’s hands by the Spirit to those who were in need.
As the day drew to a close, the disciples came to Jesus and suggested that he send the people away so they could get food before the shops in the distant towns were closed for the day. Jesus challenged his disciples by telling them, “You give them something to eat.” No doubt their jaws dropped in surprise. “You can’t be serious, Jesus!” Right away they began explaining their limitations—there was no way they could feed over five thousand people!
So often this is my own response to that twinge in my heart which calls me to help someone! Here the disciples couldn’t see any way to do what was needed in the situation—they only had five loaves of bread and two fish. How far could that go? It wouldn’t even feed the disciples themselves. Why would Jesus ask them to do something they could not realistically do? What was he thinking?
What Jesus did next is instructive to us as his followers. He took the little that was available and lifted it up to his Father in prayer. Jesus knew from personal experience that what little he had, when given to the Father, would be more than what was needed in the situation. Hadn’t he experienced this that very day, when he had sought time alone with the Father to regain his spiritual strength and peace, and found himself doing ministry instead? And hadn’t his Father been faithful to carry him through as he needed the presence and power of the Spirit to do ministry?
So Jesus lifted up the fish and bread to his Father and blessed them. Then he gave them to the disciples, who then gave them to the crowd of people. Jesus was not directly involved in this miracle—he left the grunt work to the disciples. It was as they distributed the bread and fish that it was multiplied to the point that everyone ate and was satisfied. Remarkably, there was so much food left over, that each of the twelve disciples picked up a basketful of the remnants of the meal when everyone was done eating.
What happened when Jesus offered the little that the disciples had to his Father? It was multiplied to meet the present need. This was a lesson that they needed to learn—to trust God for all that they needed in order to serve those they were sent to.
Maybe today would be a good time to pause and consider, what have we been anxious and concerned about lately? Is there anything we feel totally inadequate to deal with or to take care of? What are we lacking that we know we cannot provide for ourselves? Is there some ministry task Jesus has given us that we believe we cannot do because we think we don’t have what is needed to do it?
The reality is that so often we depend upon ourselves, or others, or money or our government for what we need. This life is filled with experiences and circumstances where we cannot do for ourselves or for others what is needed. This means life so often can be fearful, frustrating, infuriating, and full of anxiety, sorrow and grief.
What we need to remember is the compassion and understanding of the God who made us, who is willing to do for us what we cannot do. He is the God who can stretch things way beyond the limits we think they have. He can also help us to see things in a new way and discover that what we thought we needed isn’t what is really important—he may have something much better in mind.
Our Abba is the compassionate One who is Healer, Restorer, and Provider. Relying upon ourselves places us in the middle of the wilderness with only a bit of fish and bread to take care of our needs. What God wants us to do is to offer all that we do have up to him, and then to take it and do those things he would have us do with what we are given. Then as we trust, as we walk in obedience, he will ensure we have everything we need and maybe even more than we can ask or imagine.
Thank you, Father, for your faithfulness, love, and grace. We offer ourselves again, all we are and all we have up to you. Please stretch it, replenish it, renew it—make it abundantly sufficient for all you give us to do. Grant us the grace to trust you, to walk in obedience to your Spirit, and to express your heart of compassion to each and every person you bring before us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; |And you who have no money come, buy and eat. | Come, buy wine and milk | Without money and without cost. | Why do you spend money for what is not bread, | And your wages for what does not satisfy? | Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, | And delight yourself in abundance.” Isaiah 55:1-2 NASB
See also Matthew 14:13–21.
By Linda Rex
June 14, 2020, Proper 6—One of the things that has come out of the most recent events, alongside the killing of George Floyd and others, is a reminder that we as human beings have a tendency to be blind to that which we prefer not to look at. Sad to say, if we are honest with ourselves, we do this all the time, preferring to keep our attention on what interests us or gives us pleasure, or what we are most comfortable experiencing.
A while ago I had the privilege of attending a GCI event in Ohio. During this weekend event, our group visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located downtown near the river in Cincinnati, Ohio (https://www.freedomcenter.org/). While most of the museum is dedicated to the history of slavery and its abolition here in America, there is an exhibit on the third floor which I found to be especially moving.
This area was filled with exhibits meant to educate visitors about the current issues in the world today regarding the slavery of men, women, and children. It was hard to see, to accept the reality that so many still live in bondage, but I found I could not turn away from the sights and sounds of those whose voices were seeking yet to be heard. It was almost as if, just by this exhibition being there with people visiting it, those people held in slavery today were given a tiny ability to speak their pain and suffering.
My personal struggle is then, having seen and heard their cries, what am I to do about it? Can I continue to live indifferent to their suffering and their need? But their need is so great, and the work required is so difficult, even beyond my ability! And therein lies the struggle—how do I personally address the needs of those who are still experiencing oppression at the hands of those around them.
The gospel of Matthew tells of how Jesus was going through all the cities and villages in Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. “Seeing the people,” it says, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NASB). That phrase “seeing the people” just leapt out at me today—he didn’t pass by indifferent to their suffering. No, he saw them.
Really seeing these people is what awoke a deep sense of compassion within Jesus and led to him offering them hope and healing. The NIV says these people were “harassed and helpless”. There is a picture created of people who had no one to look after them, to defend or protect them, or to make sure they had what they needed—water, forage, and a safe place to rest. This was the job of the shepherd, and those shepherds they did have were not caring for them, but were preying upon them and oppressing them instead.
Even though Jesus was going about healing and speaking life and hope into these people, he realized the magnitude of what was needed was beyond the capacity of one human being. Even though he was God in human flesh, his purpose was not to do everything by himself—he was mentoring disciples who were learning what it meant to live in other-centered love and service. He meant for his disciples to make other disciples who would make other disciples, and so begin to fill the earth with his compassion, care, and healing, and the good news of God’s love and grace.
As Jesus truly sees the people he is ministering to, he turns to his disciples and says to them that even though there is a great harvest of souls for the kingdom, there were insufficient workers available to do the task. He tells his disciples to pray that God would provide laborers who would participate in this ministry with him. Having truly seen the people in their distress, he longed to set them free and give them new life—Jesus tells his disciples to pray for laborers to help with the harvest.
Jesus himself turned his disciples to the Father as the source of laborers for his spiritual harvest. The heart of the Father toward those who were suffering was expressed by Jesus himself, and he knew the Father’s answer was to bring others to the place where they would be willing and able to help with this task.
And so, in the next scene, we see Jesus sending out twelve disciples in pairs, equipping them with the authority to cast out demons and to heal people, and instructing them to proclaim the kingdom of God. What in the beginning appeared to be a general request to God for helpers ended up being a personal mission for each of these disciples. They were sent out by Jesus and they began to participate in the ministry of God’s love and grace to these struggling people.
In Romans 5:1-8, the apostle Paul tells us that “Jesus is God’s grace embrace of the entire human race” (Rom. 5:2 MB). God saw us while we were still helpless, still sinners, and Jesus died for us. In Christ we find the inspiration to involve ourselves in situations where there are people who seem to be harassed, helpless, confused, aimless, and distressed. There are many more than we can possibly serve ourselves, so we pray God will provide others to come alongside and help. And then we open ourselves up to the possibility that we are the ones God is sending, and we do what we can to offer healing, renewal, and the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to those he places in front of us.
We find in Jesus our own calling as human beings to “see” our fellowman, to hear the voices so often left unheard, and to open our hearts to those who we in the past have preferred to leave our hearts closed to. We draw close to those whom we have pushed aside or ignored, and we allow our hearts to be broken by their suffering and need. We have the strength to speak the truth of God’s love and grace into that which is sinful and wretched, and offer the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
These are high ideals. And the bar was set high by our Creator and Redeemer Jesus Christ. But he sent his Spirit to infuse us with not only the capacity, but the heart, to meet this challenge. We have a long way to go before every human being is able to live with the plenty and dignity they ought to experience, but we can and must be working to that end. We begin with prayer—that God would send laborers—and then listen to hear God’s call upon our own hearts and lives to participate where we are with his strength and resources to make a difference in this world.
Father, forgive us for not seeing our brothers and sisters who are suffering, harassed, and helpless. Forgive us for diminishing one another, for not speaking life and hope into the lives of those without hope. Forgive us for not living out the truth and grace of Jesus in our relationships with one another. Lord, please send laborers to help with this great spiritual harvest. And if there is a role we are to play in the healing of our family, our city, our state, our nation, our world, please reveal it to us. Send us forth with urgency to heal, bring renewal and to proclaim your kingdom life, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.” Matthew 9:36 MSG
“God’s timing was absolutely perfect; humanity was at their weakest when Christ died their death. … Herein is the extremity of God’s love gift: mankind was rotten to the core when Christ died their death.” Romans 5:6, 8 MB
By Linda Rex
November 3, 2019, Proper 26—Imagine being hired for a job and being told that your best efforts were going to be futile and no matter how hard you tried, you would not succeed. Would you still take the job and be willing to go all the way with it, no matter what might possibly happen in the future?
Isaiah’s prophetic book records his encounter with the Triune God, where he was overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of the Lord’s divine majesty. When the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?” Isaiah volunteered, saying, “Here am I. Send me!” It is then that he heard how the people would respond to his message—they would be deaf and blind, resisting the good news Isaiah sought to share with them (Is. 6).
Throughout the years of his ministry, Isaiah’s prophetic message spoke on the one hand to the sinfulness of the nation and called them back to their covenant relationship with God. On the other hand, the Lord also shared through Isaiah the hope for a redemptive future through a suffering servant messiah who would deliver his people and change their hearts and minds so they would finally love and serve their God.
This prophet faithfully fulfilled his calling, speaking words that apparently no one wanted to hear. He recorded the Lord’s words, telling his nation and many others what the consequences would be for their choices and the way they were living. Isaiah was never celebrated during his life, but according to tradition was sawn in two—an ignoble death for one dedicated to the service of God.
The key to Isaiah’s devotion to such a seemingly futile enterprise lay in his relationship with God himself. When faced with the holiness of the Triune God, he saw himself as a man of unclean lips living among an unclean people. But God offered him grace, taking away his iniquity and cleansing him from his sin. Isaiah’s faithfulness to such a seemingly fruitless task wasn’t for his own glory, but in gratitude to God for his gracious redemption.
Thankfully, Isaiah’s efforts weren’t totally in vain. Whatever he did write, whether or not others contributed to it, was preserved for us to read today. If we were to look in the new testament, we would find Jesus himself quoting the words of Isaiah. The gospel writers were happy to show how Isaiah’s prophetic words were fulfilled in Christ. Even Luke, when recording the book of Acts, tells about Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian who was reading the book of Isaiah and wanting help to understand the words he was reading. This led to the man’s baptism.
Sharing the word of God is not always a comfortable experience. What we forget, or at least I do, is that people don’t necessarily want to hear the truth, especially if it will make them uncomfortable or help them see that they are wrong. An innocent statement, couched in the context of one’s relationship with God, may cause an extreme reaction in someone who is resistant to the Spirit’s work in their hearts and minds. We may blame ourselves for not saying things better, but in reality, it may have nothing to do with us and everything to do with that person’s refusal to respond to the Spirit’s work in their heart and mind.
The closer Christ comes to us, the more we see our need for redemption. But for some of us, this may mean the faster we run the other direction or the harder we fight to resist the pull of grace. We cannot coerce anyone with the gospel—that is not God’s way at all. The gospel is an invitation which can be rejected, ignored, or torn up and thrown in the wastebasket.
So, sharing God’s love and his gospel good news must always be done in the context of prayer. We need the presence and power of the Triune God in the midst of our sharing of God’s grace and love. He is the One who changes hearts and minds. He is the one who takes our scarlet sins and makes them white as snow.
We also need to remember how Jesus approached people. The way we talk with them and about them needs to reflect the nature and goodness of our gracious God. In the story of Zaccheus, we find Jesus heading through town, and this man of short stature climbing a tree in an effort to see him when he would pass by. Jesus goes to him and tells him that he must stay at Zaccheus’ house.
In any case, this started the townspeople talking, for Zaccheus was a notorious “sinner”, a tax collector. Jesus did not see the man in this way. He saw him as a redeemed “son of Abraham” and someone who was lost who needed to be found. The approach of Jesus was redemptive and welcoming, speaking to and of Zaccheus as if he was already forgiven, accepted, and found. His gracious acceptance was lost on the townspeople who had their minds set on the sinfulness of the tax collector, but for Zaccheus, they were life. He immediately sought to express his gratitude by making amends.
Our sharing of the good news is a natural outworking of the Spirit’s redemptive work in our hearts and minds, and our lives. We bear witness to what Jesus has done to transform, heal and renew. We may experience resistance—let it be only because we are reflections of the glory, grace and love of God. Let it not be because we have sought to coerce or manipulate or use others. Let it not be because we have maligned the word of God due to our hypocrisy or unloving actions or words.
And let us pray—for open hearts, open doors, open paths for the gospel to spread. Pray for individual people we have met or gotten to know. Pray that they will encounter the Triune God, the living Lord Jesus, and be baptized in the Holy Spirit’s fire of love and grace. And courageously, let us speak the words of life, no matter the result. Someday, maybe in eternal glory, we may be surprised at what God has done with our simple efforts to share his words of life.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, for including us in your mission in this world, to tell everyone of the gracious love of our heavenly Father. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for working to bring each of us to see and know the Father and Son more intimately, and to transform our hearts by faith. Do bring these, our brothers and sisters, to faith in Christ so we can share together in fellowship and unity both now and forever. Amen.
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19:10 NASB
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ | Says the Lord, | ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, | They will be as white as snow; | Though they are red like crimson, | They will be like wool.’” Isaiah 1:18 NASB
“How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, | Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, | And in whose spirit there is no deceit! When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away | Through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; | My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to You, | And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; | And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; | Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; | You preserve me from trouble; | You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.” Psalm 32:1–7 NASB
By Linda Rex
PENTECOST—As a pastor, I am often burdened by the struggles and suffering of those I minister to and of those I encounter as I move about in my community. I would love to help people find freedom from the things which enslave them and to find peace, joy, and renewal in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
But I realize how easy it is to allow the distractions and interests of life to occupy my own mind, time, and attention to the place that I lose focus on the things of God. Any relationship becomes stale or divided if not enough attention is given to it. To become indifferent to another person rather than deeply connected with them can easily happen without our realizing it if we are preoccupied with other things.
When we read about the disciples after the resurrection, we find them gathered together in community continuing in their relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer. As a group they were focused in prayer and they remembered that Jesus had told them they were to be witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. But Jesus had told them to wait—to wait until they were clothed with power from on high.
I have no doubt that Peter could have told a powerful story of his own personal redemption, of how he had betrayed Jesus but Jesus had forgiven him and recommissioned him to tend the flock of God’s people. Matthew could have told about how Jesus found him in the marketplace, a despised tax collector, and told him to follow him, and how Jesus had changed his life and given him a new purpose. Mary Magdalene could have shared how Jesus had freed her from her many demons and given her a new life of service and obedience to her Lord.
But Jesus had told each of them to wait. He had told them that telling his story in their story would not be enough. Something more was needed.
God had come in the person of Jesus Christ, had taken on our humanity, had forged a new human existence for us, and had taught his disciples how to love and serve others in the way God meant us as humans to live. But Jesus was touching only a few people’s lives while he was here on earth. From the beginning God had intended the transformation of the entire cosmos. He had meant a change in the very substance of our human existence which would heal, restore, and renew all things.
For this reason, after his death and resurrection, Jesus needed to return to the Father and send the Spirit. Pouring out this gift of God’s presence and power on all flesh gave each human being the capacity for the new life Jesus forged for us while living in our humanity. And Jesus was frank about the reality that the world would not receive this gift. He knew and understood our human capacity to rebel against God and to resist the gracious love of the Father.
It seems that apart from our Abba’s work, we do not receive this gift and walk in the truth of our existence as his adopted children. Our tendency is to listen to and embrace the lies of the evil one instead and to seek our life in this broken existence rather than in the One who created us and redeemed us. We prefer to design and assume our own self-created identity rather than embracing the one given to us by God—to be his image-bearers, children who love him and one another with a self-sacrificial, humble, serving and gracious love.
What we don’t realize is that apart from this precious gift of the Spirit and the work of God’s power and presence in our lives, we are living as if something is missing. There is a capacity we do not have which we need so that we are able to truly be the people God intends us to be. We are not truly ourselves apart from the indwelling Spirit, for when the Spirit dwells richly within us, God dwells within and we participate in the realization of the kingdom of God. We experience in those moments what it describes in Revelation 21:3-5 where God comes to dwell with man and Jesus works to make all things new.
In Genesis, we read how Adam and Eve walked in the garden of Eden with God, talking with him and sharing all of life with him. Being in God’s presence and experiencing a personal relationship with our Creator is what we were created for. But more than that, we have been given through Jesus Christ by the Spirit the very real presence of God within our very being. Now God dwells within us permanently rather than merely being with us.
The power and presence of God within is lifechanging and transformational, but we will not experience the reality of this as long as other people and interests command our attention and focus. If our dependency is upon the things of this life, we will not depend upon God and his Spirit. Due to God’s grace, we can survive quite nicely for a while doing this, but we will miss out on the capacity to fully participate in our real human existence as children of God. We will struggle to truly express the nature of God in our words and actions and any witness we may give to the person and work of Jesus Christ will be limited and ineffective.
Attending upon the things of the Spirit through the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, silence, sharing, bible study, gratitude, and meditation opens us up to the Spirit’s work within. Slowing down and taking time to focus on Jesus Christ allows the Spirit fill us and renew us for the work we have been given—to testify to the goodness and love of the Father expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ. Just as the early church learned to wait for the promise of the Spirit before moving ahead on mission with Jesus, today believers learn to rest in Christ and to wait upon the Spirit before attempting to do ministry in this broken world.
Today, how can we pause and make room for the Spirit’s work within? How can we give undivided attention to the Lord Jesus Christ through prayer and the other spiritual disciplines? Perhaps all that is needed is simply silence and rest. God is present and real at all times—we simply need to awaken to his presence and power within, and to allow the Spirit to renew, inspire, teach, and lead us.
Thank you, Abba, that through Jesus you have sent your Spirit. Awaken us to your presence and power at work within us. Enable us to experience renewal, refreshment, and healing by your precious Spirit. Holy Spirit, fill us anew and empower us to bear witness to Jesus, and to live and walk in truth in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” Acts 2:4 NASB
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” John 14:12 NASB
“For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” Romans 8:14 NASB
By Linda Rex
This month at Good News Fellowship we are celebrating all the hands which join together to minister to the people in our community and to the body of Christ. We have so many people in our little congregation who are integral in some way to the ministry of Community Café and to the church itself. I am grateful to each person who contributes their gifts, prayers, and financial support.
I realize there are times when we wonder whether or not all the effort is worth it. We sacrifice and struggle to serve, and it may seem like it doesn’t make a difference or we can’t seem to do enough to satisfy the needs or expectations of those we are serving.
Needs seem to multiply the more we try to meet them. We cannot control the weather, or the destructiveness of fire and wind. Jesus said we would always have the poor among us, for there will always be someone who can’t or won’t live within their means. It seems there will always be needs for us to meet as a participation in God’s care for his creation.
Expectations, however, are a different thing entirely. The longer I am in pastoral ministry, the more I realize the power of expectations to cause disappointment, discouragement, resentment, and disunity.
Some people do not realize the unreasonable expectations they put on pastors and others in pastoral ministry. I know of pastors’ wives who dread the phone ringing just when the family is setting down to dinner because it seems to always be the same person demanding instant attention about something which is not urgent nor life-threatening.
Pastors and those in pastoral ministry have to have really strong personal boundaries otherwise it is very easy for them to allow people to invade every part of their lives to the extent there is nothing left for their own family. They often find themselves saying yes to too many things. There are a lot of good things to do—people to care for and needs to be met. And the list of things to do seems to grow all the time.
It is because we have a heart to care for others and to show them God’s love that it is easy to say yes to too many things. It is easy to burn ourselves out working for Christ, when Christ never once asked us to do any of the things we are doing. This is why it is so important we be able to discern God’s real calling to each of us individually and collectively, and to only participate fully in those particular things God is calling us to do with him.
But in saying no to certain things, we need to be willing to accept the reality we are going to disappoint someone. We are going to fail to meet someone’s expectations of us, and that is going to feel uncomfortable for a while for both us and for them.
I have a hard time saying no to opportunities to serve in my community group. I would really like to be doing everything they ask me to do. But I have learned I cannot say yes unless I am certain it is what God wants me to be doing and I genuinely have the time, the ability, and the calling to do it. I realize saying no is going to make them unhappy just as it makes me unhappy, and it very well may cause them to draw away from me and not include me in future opportunities. But no is what I need to say.
I am grateful I minister to a congregation which is so respectful of my time and home life, I have to remind them to call me when they are going through a difficult time. I am grateful they remind me to take care of myself and my family, and they often step up when I have more going on than I can do on my own.
I don’t have a spouse to share my load, and I am deeply grateful when my brothers and sisters are willing to help me and serve me in so many ways. But realize I also have to be respectful of their time, energy, and capacity to serve as well. I need to not have expectations of people in my congregation which are unreasonable or insensitive.
Sometimes I forget to be thoughtful and considerate to my spiritual community, and I regret it when I do. My brothers and sisters in Christ pour themselves out generously and freely, so I pray Abba will pour generously and freely back into them in every way possible so they will be renewed and encouraged rather than drained and exhausted.
Sometimes we can have and do express unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of people and do not realize we are doing it. Unhealthy expectations of others can cause pain and disrupt relationships. When we know someone has a caregiving, generous personality, we need to protect them from their tendency to over give rather than taking advantage of it all the time.
We also need to respect the humanity of those who serve or lead others in the body of Christ. I cannot enumerate the veiled criticisms I have received about decisions which cost me hours of prayer, fasting, and tears to make. It seems sometimes people expect me as a pastor to not have anything in my life which I regret or which I did not have control over. Their expectation is I will always have lived my life in a way which meets their idea of perfection. Such expectations are unreasonable and unhealthy. The truth is, any pastor I know who is worth their salt is an ongoing creation of redemption in Christ and has places in his or her life where God is at work right now healing, transforming, and renewing.
There are times when in conversation with someone, I perceive sly innuendo and subtle hints of how I need to improve my ministry or home life. This seems to be an unpleasant but natural part of the journey of pastoral ministry. I have always been open and transparent, and it tends to open me up to criticism. But I would rather live this way than to feel like I need to hide myself away from the people I love and serve all the time. Real relationship requires authenticity, even though such transparency opens us up to criticism and unrealized expectations. Real relationship requires a lot of grace—grace which pastors and those in pastoral ministry need a lot of.
Perhaps as we celebrate this month, it is good time to be reminded of the generosity and kindness of the God who laid everything down for us. This is the God who in Christ willingly joined himself to our humanity and sent his Spirit so he could share in every part of our life and our service to others. This is the God who replenishes, renews, and restores us, and who inspires us to care for and love others. We draw our life and our being from him. May we be filled anew with his love and grace, and find renewal in him as we serve him and those he brings into our lives.
Thank you, Abba, for each and every person in our lives who serves you and each one of us. Thank you for those who give of their time, prayers, and resources so that others may be blessed, cared for, and comforted. Free us from our unhealthy and insensitive expectations of others, and enable us to be gracious and compassionate in every circumstance, and sensitive to the limitations of those who serve us. Replenish and renew all those in pastoral ministry, and remind them what they do to share in your ministry is valuable and worthwhile, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.” Philippians 2:17-18 NASB
“Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians
By Linda Rex
This morning one of the members, Pat, and I were outside painting a sign at the church. The sun was slowly rising and the intensity of its heat was increasing as we worked to finish our project. Several people who live in the neighborhood passed by, either jogging or walking their dogs, and we said hello. Nearly all of them were friendly and responded cordially. It really was a pleasant day to be in the neighborhood.
I have been a pastor with Good News Fellowship for just about five years now, and this neighborhood has changed tremendously within that short period of time. A common sight are houses being torn down and new, multiple dwellings being put in their place. The neighborhood is in the midst of a gentrification process, yet in spite of all this change, neighbors are starting to get to know one another and look out for one another. And they are vocal about their desire to create and live in a safe, friendly community.
It’s good to see and experience the feeling of community growing around us. This neighborhood has only begun to feel that way to me within the last year or two. Perhaps the neighborhood seems different partly because I am actually in the neighborhood involved in some activity on some day other than Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. And I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the people who live on the street the church is located on, to learn their names and a little bit about them through the neighborhood association and community activities.
We have a few church neighbors who come over and participate in our weekly Community Café free meal. But these are not the neighbors I saw last night or this morning as we worked on the sign. I have met a few of these neighbors at community events or on the street, but not within our church doors. A few may attend other churches in the Nashville community, but most are uninterested in, and even opposed to, organized Christian religion. Christianity is being viewed more and more as the cause of disharmony and disunity rather than being seen as the solution to it.
One of the conversations we find ourselves having as a pastoral team is how we have a wide variety of people we minister to and who worship with us—all races and strata of society—but none of them are from this group of young adults who are moving into the neighborhood. These are talented and educated professionals who reflect a post-Christian mindset. They are very community-minded, but want nothing to do with organized religion. And I believe they have every reason to reject it when I take into consideration everything they have heard or seen about Christians and their churches.
What I have found since I moved to the South is a strong Christian culture in the Bible Belt—even more so than what I experienced while living in the farming country of Iowa. This Christian culture has its strong points and also its drawbacks. Nowadays in our ministry to people in our community I find I’m talking with someone who already has a lengthy experience with church and the Bible, rather than with someone who is biblically illiterate or unchurched. This means in the apostle Paul’s language, when I share the gospel with this person or preach the Word of God to him or her, I am building on another person’s foundation rather than building directly upon Christ himself.
Conversations with people who are churched can be challenging. What people may believe about the Bible or God might be drawn from the teachings of various televangelists or popular authors, and need some serious reassessment due to their lack of a healthy spiritual foundation in Christ himself and his written Word. But other times, some people are so sure they are right about what they believe there is no room for the Word of God to go to work to bring about renewal and transformation. The Spirit’s efforts to heal and restore are hampered by the haphazard building which has already been done on the foundation which may or may not be Jesus Christ.
This complicates our efforts to fully proclaim the gospel of Christ, as Paul puts it. We are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to minister the word of God to those who already have been built on Christ, and also to deconstruct and rebuild those who need to be reconstructed on a healthy foundation. We are utterly dependent upon Christ and his work by the Spirit in any effort to preach the gospel of Christ to anyone, whether believer or not.
Indeed, it’s a real challenge to reach out to those who are unchurched or who are adamantly opposed to church or Christianity in any form. There is only one option left open to us sometimes and it is a good one, actually. What is left for us to do is to share God’s love with each and every person we meet in tangible ways—we begin to be good neighbors to each and every person, sharing life with them, offering them truth and grace—and sharing in word and deed what it means to live in the truth of who God is and who we are in him.
Our challenge as a church congregation is to get out of the pews and get into relationships with our church neighbors. This is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable task for some of us, but it is one which God has placed before us. Yet it is not given without his promises and his real, personal Presence in the Holy Spirit to go with us.
The early church prayed for God to confirm his Word through signs and wonders, and to extend the reach of the gospel. And Jesus, by his Spirit and with his people, did those very things. We are called to pray and to participate in Christ’s ministry to the world. We have not only because we ask not, and because we depend upon ourselves and our efforts instead of upon Christ. I would encourage those who feel the longing for Jesus to grow and heal this world and this community to pray, to ask, and to anticipate God’s generous outpouring of response.
God is not put off by a post-Christian culture. None of this is about Christianity anyway. It is all about each and every person growing up in his or her Christlikeness—of sharing the common relationship we have all been given in Christ by the Spirit with the God who made us in his image to reflect his likeness and to share his love. And our role is to participate in the process and to follow wherever Christ leads us. May we respond to his call to each of us by his Holy Spirit. There is much to be done.
Dear God, thank you for loving each and every person whether or not they know you, or love you in return. I am grateful you are not put off by our refusal to believe, but rather you continue to work unceasingly to change our hearts and minds and to bring us into deep relationship with you in Christ by your Spirit. We long for you to bring spiritual renewal and transformation to our neighborhood so each person can experience the reality of true community. Make it so, Lord, by your Spirit. Give us each the boldness and courage, as well as the opportunities, to share your Words of life and your love with our neighbors. And Holy Spirit, please confirm your Word by the signs and wonders which are appropriate in this day and age, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’” Romans 15:17–21 NIV
By Linda Rex
I think the story of St. Patrick is a fascinating one. I never knew until a few years ago I could read his writings and learn quite a bit about this man in the process (for example, go to: https://archive.org/details/writingsofsaintp00patr). In his writings, we see a man just like you and me, who struggled in his relationship with God, in his own personal life, and in coming to know what it meant to follow Christ and to live this out in a pagan culture in which his life and well-being were always at risk.
In my life, years ago, the March 17th holiday celebrating his life was lumped, along with many others, into the category of pagan holidays. I have since made the effort to learn the story behind the observation of this day, and most specifically, the story of St. Patrick’s life and service to God in spreading the Trinitarian gospel of love. I’ve come to see there is something to be said for pausing in the midst of our life to reflect on the beauty of the Trinity, and to once again embrace our calling to lay it all down so others may know God as he really is.
What struck me about St. Patrick’s life was not just the suffering he went through as a slave among the Celtic people who stole him from his home. Rather, what really hit home was the choice he made later in life when he was free and at home with his family, to leave it all behind and go back to the Celtic people who had so disrupted his life, so they could hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This resembles so much what the apostle Paul wrote when describing the ministry of God to us in his Son:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5–8 NASB)
When we think about the Word of God, who was God and who was With God, who lived eternally in this inner relation of interpenetrating love and mutual submission, we must realize at some point, God had all he needed—he was at perfect peace, in perfect joy, in such glory and splendor there was no reason for the Word of God to come to this far country, to enter our darkness and blackness, except—love. There is no other possible motivation for doing such a thing—but this is what Jesus said he did: “For God so loved the world he gave…” The Father’s love was so great, even the Father was part of the coming of the Word into our broken, fallen cosmos.
I remember as I first read the story of St. Patrick, I was horrified by the experiences he went through in his simple effort to love God and to share the truth of God’s love for us in Jesus. Why would anyone choose to go through such experiences? Apart from the love of God placed in their hearts, they wouldn’t. It is only the love of God himself which could enable us to give so freely in the midst of such danger, hostility and abuse. The freedom to give one’s life completely in this way is a participation in the freedom of God to give himself completely to us, to humanity, even when he knew it meant he would experience suffering and death at our hands.
This has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks—just how much do we as comfortable, well-fed, well-dressed, well-employed people of any nation, creed or language, express this same willingness to set aside the benefits and comforts of our lives for the sake of sharing the love of God in Christ with those who are caught in the darkness of evil, poverty, suffering and grief? Does it break our hearts that others around us do not know who God really is, and that he loves them just as much as he loves us? Do we care enough to do as Jesus did—leave all the blessings for a time so others might experience God’s love?
And yet, this is a struggle for me. What does it mean to truly love another human being? Is it best to just give a hungry person money? Or is it better to help them find a way to feed themselves? Is it best to give someone money for a place to stay for the night? Or is it better to let them experience the consequences of refusing to get sober so they could stay at the mission at night and eventually get a job and own their own home?
Really, what does it mean to leave our comforts so others may find comfort? What does it mean to show and teach our neighbor the love of God in Christ?
We cannot fix other people, but we can sure bring them to Christ and participate with Christ in what he is doing to heal, restore, and renew them. We cannot, and should not, do for others what they should be and could be doing for themselves. Carrying other people’s loads in their place is not healthy for them or for us (Gal. 6:5). And yet, God calls us to be available to help others who are overburdened beyond their ability to bear up (Gal. 6:2), for this reflects God’s heart of love.
Loving others should not arise out of a sense of guilt or shame, but out of a genuine concern and compassion which comes straight from the heart of the Father, through Jesus in the Spirit. It is best to be discerning in our loving of others as ourselves. Loving another person doesn’t automatically mean we give them what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. Loving another person may mean saying no, or telling them the truth in love, or asking them to get the help they need so they can heal, grow or change.
This brings to mind the apostle Paul’s prayer: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9–11 NASB) Prayer and listening to God’s Word to us via the Holy Spirit and the written Word are important parts of knowing what we need to do to love others as ourselves.
We need the grace of God, God’s wisdom, insight and discernment to know how best to share God’s love with others. God gave St. Patrick a call to go to Ireland and he did—but then God also gave him the grace to do the ministry he called him to. We walk by faith, trusting God to guide our footsteps, to give us wisdom in how we love others and tell them the truth about who God is and who they are in Christ. As we keep in tune with the Spirit, God will guide us and teach us how to love each unique person he puts in our path.
Abba, may we each be filled with your heart of love toward those who are caught in darkness, suffering and difficulty. May we be willing to leave our blessings behind as you ask us to and be willing to struggle and suffer and lay down our lives, so others may share in the Triune life and love with us, through Jesus our Lord and by your precious Spirit. Amen.
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” Galatians 6:7–10 NASB
by Linda Rex
I anticipated another note of encouragement as I opened a friend’s letter last week. She had been like a spiritual mentor to me as God prepared me for ministry. Her ongoing support and prayers have been a real blessing to me in so many ways.
Sadly, though, this letter did not contain any positive news. Rather, it was to let me know that she had been rejected as a volunteer in the ministry she had helped to start and had faithfully served in for seven years. Her heart was broken, obviously, for her work there was instrumental in building and maintaining that ministry from nothing to serving hundreds of poor and needy people each month.
When someone pours their heart, their finances, their prayers, their whole life into ministry to others, they often become deeply attached to those they help care for. This friend’s heart was broken because she was called by God to care for those she had grown to love in this way and now she could not do it.
This is the flip side to ministry—when you give your heart to others in service to them it very well might get broken. When you lay your life on the line for others, you may very well lose it. When you give freely to others, they may take everything you own.
When God calls us to do ministry of any kind (and for many people their vocation is their ministry) he doesn’t promise a smooth road or a long-term commitment. Often our service has ups and downs, joys and deep disappointments. And at some point it will come to an end and God will begin a new thing. Incarnating the life of Jesus in our everyday life is no different than when the God of heaven took on human flesh and was born in a manger. God didn’t pick the easy way of life, but the humble, difficult path of being the Suffering Servant. And this is what he calls us to as well.
The benefit we have is that Jesus Christ paved the way before us. He lived the life we are to live, died our death and rose from the grave. And even better, he took us with himself into the presence of the Father. Now, when we do ministry, we never do it on our own initiative or under our own power. All that we do in ministry is only a participation in Christ’s eternal ministry. Whatever we give is sharing in his eternal giving. For Jesus Christ is both the Giver and the Gift. So whatever may happen to us in ministry, we are not alone. It is not our ministry—it is his ministry.
And so when the tough stuff happens and the disappointments come, we surrender to the leadership and purposes of Jesus as he works to fulfill his mission in the world. We allow God to determine our next steps, trusting that he has something better in mind. Unlike our Christian institutions, which tend to enclose God’s mission in the world into one way of working and serving over years and years in the midst of a changing culture, the Holy Spirit is always doing something new, meeting people where they are in their culture and personal circumstances.
Doing life and ministry with Jesus in this way means there will be ups and downs, and there will be beginnings and ends. Though the end of the baby born in a manger was death on a cross on a hill, the ministry of Jesus Christ only began there. The resurrected Christ ministers to us even today and stands as our Worship Leader, our Priest, our Mediator and Intercessor forever in our place. All that we do, we do in him. And this is the other “flip side to ministry.”
No matter how tough it gets, no matter how many losses we suffer, we always start anew. Because we know and trust that Jesus Christ is in the midst of it all, guiding and directing it according to the Father’s will by the Holy Spirit. We are reminded that it is God who serves each and every one of us and we get to share in that service. So whatever we do in life, whether a vocation or ministry of service, we do it in Christ by the Spirit to the glory of the Father. And so it has meaning and value. And in Christ it is blessed. So we serve in joy no matter which “side” of ministry we happen to be on at the moment.
Father, thank you for giving us your Son to minister to us and so that we can do ministry in him. Thank you for sending your Spirit to inspire, lead and guide us as well as comfort us as we care for others and serve you. Refresh our hearts, souls and minds so that we can freely and fully serve you and each person you bring into our lives. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
“…but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.” 2 Cor. 6:4-10 (NASB)