Facing Our Dust

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By Linda Rex

Ash Wednesday/Lent
On Wednesday this week a few of us gathered at Good News Fellowship, and we spent some time reflecting on the meaning of Ash Wednesday and sharing the Lord’s table together. This year was a bit unusual because Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day were both celebrated on the same day.

In some ways there can be a disconnect between these two celebrations. As I walked around the local grocery store earlier in the day, the amount of fresh flowers and candy which were available for the customers was overwhelming. We watched people walking out the door with bundles of flowers, and my daughter and I speculated on who these flowers were for—a wife, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a mother, or someone in the hospital?

But the irony was, we were surrounded by all this abundance at the same time some of us were trying to determine what, if anything, we were planning to give up for Lent. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season and Lent is a time when we may in some way participate with Jesus in his forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. We participate in Lent by heeding the Spirit’s call to repentance. During Lent, it is appropriate to offer something to God or give something up temporarily as a way of making ourselves available for the Spirit to grow, heal, and renew us. This is a spiritual discipline which has been practiced by people in the universal Church for centuries.

There is a perspective of repentance and humility we can gain by taking some time in somber reflection on our broken humanity and expressing to God our acknowledgement of our need for and utter dependence upon him. He is our Abba who not only made us and sustains us, but also redeemed us in his Son Jesus, and dwells in us and with us by his precious Spirit.

Many traditions offer a smudge of ashes upon a person’s forehead on Ash Wednesday as a mark of humility and an acknowledgement of our need for grace and salvation. The priest often uses the words of scripture: “All came from the dust and all return to the dust.” (Eccl. 3:20 NASB) That seems rather final to me. There is so much more to the story than we’re all going to end up in the ground, returned to the basics of our existence—the ground out of which we were made.

It seems to me, and this is just my opinion, that it ought to be possible to celebrate Ash Wednesday as a time of humility and hope. To me, I don’t feel we need to abandon our hope in the resurrection just because we are acknowledging our brokenness and need for Christ. As I offer the mark of ashes upon each one’s forehead, I like to say something to the effect of, “You came from dust, you return to dust. We thank the Lord of the dust he has joined us in our dust so we will join with him in glory.” The gospel tells us that death is not the end—there is so much more to our existence than this!

Thomas Torrance in chapter two of his book “Atonement” examines Psalm 49. Here he shows how the ransoming of a human soul or life is impossible for you or me. There is no price we could pay which would be sufficient to redeem any person from death. No matter how hard we may try, we cannot save ourselves. Our best efforts are insufficient.

God made us, the wonderful creatures we are, in his own image, to reflect his likeness. We are to be image-bearers of God himself. Yet it seems we prefer to image everything but God. And because of that, we invariably inherit death. We have, in essence, a “death-wish”—a corruption in our humanity which we cannot fight against or escape on our own.

God made us from nothing to have a glory which was a reflection of his. And all we seem to do is choose the path back to nothingness. As Athanasius said in “On the Incarnation”, in seeing his good creation falling back into the nothingness from which it was made, what was God, being good, to do?

What was God to do, indeed? As Torrance explains, God gave a life for a life—his life for the life of humanity. The great exchange is the Word of God, the true Image-bearer of Abba, given for you and me and every other human being who has ever existed, in our place and on our behalf. The Life for our life.

This is how we know we are loved by God. The apostle John writes, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us….” (1 John 3:16 NASB) Whatever Valentine’s Day may mean to each of us, we can know this: The true expression of love is found in the gift of Abba—his Son. The laying down of his Son’s life for you and for me and for every other human being on this earth is a true expression of genuine and faithful love. And no bouquet of flowers or box of candy could ever match that precious gift. The Life for our life.

So, even though we can and should admit our brokenness and our desperate need for salvation, we can also at the same time rest in the eternal embrace of God’s love and grace. We can face the dust to which we return without fear—death has lost its sting. In Christ, there is no fear of death left. We can see death for what it is—a defeated foe, a failed conqueror. Death and sin are cast into the fire of God’s love and grace and no longer reign triumphantly over us. And so we have hope in the midst of our humility.

Thank you, Abba, for your precious gift. Thank you, Jesus, for giving yourself in our place. Thank you, Spirit, for bringing this to full expression in each of our lives in your own special way. Our Loving God, we give you gratitude and praise, and offer you all our love and devotion, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Why should I fear when trouble comes, when enemies surround me? They trust in their wealth and boast of great riches. Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God. Redemption does not come so easily, for no one can ever pay enough to live forever and never see the grave. Those who are wise must finally die, just like the foolish and senseless, leaving all their wealth behind. The grave is their eternal home, where they will stay forever. They may name their estates after themselves, but their fame will not last. They will die, just like animals. This is the fate of fools, though they are remembered as being wise. Interlude Like sheep, they are led to the grave, where death will be their shepherd. In the morning the godly will rule over them. Their bodies will rot in the grave, far from their grand estates. But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave.”
Psalm 49:5-15 NLT

Rejected, but Beloved

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By Linda Rex

Creative people such as writers, songwriters, and artists will most likely at some point experience the painful reality of rejection or dismissal of their creative efforts. Sadly, many a gifted person has walked away from pursuing a career in a particular field because a significant person or instructor has rejected or harshly criticized what they have offered.

I remember as a youth I had loved to write little stories and poetry. I thought maybe I might like to be an author someday, but my writing always seemed inadequate and trite. When I first went to college I turned in a paper for an American literature course. The teacher gave me a C, which was a new experience for an A student. I finally got up the courage to ask her why she gave me such a low grade on what I thought was a good paper. She proceeded to annihilate all my efforts at writing. If I had been emotionally healthier, I believe I might have handled her criticism better, but as it was, it took me a long time before I allowed someone else to read or critique my creative writing.

I realize today rejection is a part of our human experience. None of us like it, especially when we have become hypersensitive due to attachment wounds. Rejection can feel very much like a death, because it penetrates down to the core of who we believe we are. We can allow fear of rejection to hamper us and tie us down, even to the place we are immobilized by it in the very areas we are the most gifted.

Rejection is not something we are alone in experiencing, though. Throughout the centuries, our loving God has experienced the rejection of his chosen people, and the rejection of the creatures he created in his own image after his likeness.

I would say in many ways our experience of rejection, whatever it may be, is a sharing in the rejection God has experienced since the first rejection of Adam and Eve. They chose to turn away from him and trust in their own ability to determine what is right and wrong rather than embracing his gift of the tree of life in relationship with him.

If we were to accept our common experience of rejection, we might find ourselves better able to handle rejection when it happens to us. We can be compassionate when it happens to another person, and more thoughtful before rejecting someone else. And if anything, it ought to at least make us sympathetic enough to reconsider our own personal response to God’s personal offer of love and grace to us.

Truly, we are each put in the place of having to make a decision when we encounter Jesus Christ. When we come face to face with the living Lord, we must embrace him or reject him—he does not give us any middle ground.

The story in the Christian calendar which is normally told on December 28th involves the encounter of the wise men from the east with the newly born Messiah. In this story, we see two completely different responses to Jesus Christ’s arrival. The correct response is illustrated by the wise men following the lead of the Spirit and the light of a star, seeking out the Christ child, and upon finding him, worshiping him and offering him gifts. This is the best response any of us can give when we come face to face with the truth of God’s love and presence in the person of Jesus Christ.

The other hell-bent response is illustrated by King Herod. Yes, he sought to know where the Christ child was, ostensibly to worship him, but in reality, for the sole purpose of destroying him and preventing him from fulfilling his purpose for coming into the world. King Herod wasn’t satisfied with ignorance of Jesus’ location, No, his rejection of the Messiah went so far as to include massacring all the boy babies in Bethlehem.

The rejection of the Messiah by King Herod is only the beginning of the many ways in which Jesus was rejected during his lifetime on earth. Though he “grew up healthy and strong” and “he was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him” as a human boy (Luke 2:40), we find out later by some of his people he was considered an illegitimate child only worthy of contempt (John 8:41).

Throughout his ministry, we see Jesus either embraced or rejected by the people he encountered. Indeed, the ones we expect to see him welcomed by are the ones who actually opposed him. Sitting at his feet were the lost, the least, and those rejected by the religious leaders. Those same leaders rejected Jesus’ person and ministry, even though he demonstrated by miracle and acts of love he was the Messiah, the Son of God in person.

Toward the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus began to push the buttons of these leaders. He brought them face to face with the sinfulness of their hearts, and exposed the evil motives which drove them. He brought them to judgment, to krisis, to a place where they would have to choose. He sought to bring them to repentance and faith—but he knew they would not make that choice. He knew the Jewish leaders would reject him, and he warned his disciples this would happen.

We are reminded on Palm Sunday how the crowds welcomed Jesus with joy, celebrating his entrance into Jerusalem. And then on Good Friday we are reminded anew of the real extent of all of humanity’s rejection of the Savior of the world as Jesus died at our hands in the crucifixion. It is not enough that Judas Iscariot betrayed him, but then Peter his close companion denied him. You and I stand there in each moment of rejection, betrayal, and denial, and we find ourselves betraying, denying, and crucifying Christ Jesus ourselves.

This should not create an oppressive sorrow, but rather the deep sorrow of repentance which is overwhelmed by the joy of renewal and forgiveness in the resurrection. This rejected One took your place and mine and in our stead gave us new life—the acceptance and embrace of our heavenly Abba.

Jesus Christ, the rejected One, does not reject us—he saves us! Abba, the Father we turned our backs on and rejected, receives us in his Son Jesus Christ—we are accepted in the Beloved. The Spirit is sent to us so we can participate fully in the divine perichoretic relationship of love and grace.

We find in Christ, the rejected One, a unity with God and with one another which would not otherwise exist. In Jesus Christ by the Spirit we find the capacity to forgive those who reject us, and the ability to embrace those we would normally reject.

The beauty of the Triune life in each Person’s unique relationship, equality, and unity begins to be expressed in our relationships with God and one another as we turn to Christ and receive the gift of the Spirit he gives us. This time of year, as we ponder the loss of so many innocent lives both then and now, we are comforted by the gift God gave us in his Son Jesus Christ. As we receive this precious gift and open ourselves up to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, we will find we are not rejected, but beloved and held forever in the Triune embrace of love and grace, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Dearest Abba, thank you for your infinite patience, compassion, and grace toward us in spite of our rejection of you and our refusal to humble ourselves to accept your love as obedient children. Grant us repentance and faith—a simple trust in your perfect love and grace—a turning away from ourselves and a turning toward your Son Jesus, and an opening up of all of ourselves to you and the work of your Spirit of truth. May we walk in love and grace towards one another in Christ and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

“They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11 NLT

Living in the Dance

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By Linda Rex

One of the little known facts of my existence is one year I was Miss Sadie Hawkins at the yearly high school Sadie Hawkins dance. To this day I believe the only reason I received this special bouquet of roses was solely due to the efforts of my best friend to dress me in one of her mother’s traditional square dance outfits, and the blessing of having a date who was an energetic and skilled dancer.

Square dancing is both challenging and fun. One has to pay attention to the caller, follow his instructions, and do so at the same time he or she is interacting with seven other people in the square. When everyone is all in tune with the caller and one another, the group can do very intricate movements in time with the music. But all it takes is one person stopping to do a do-si-do in the middle of an allemande left, and you have bruised shins, broken toes, and lot of unhappy people.

Square dancing is a good illustration of what it’s like living in the divine dance with Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit. In Christ, God has given us a way of living and being in Jesus Christ which involves each and every person around us. As we listen to the Spirit and obey the living Word, we move together in the intricate dance of life.

It is the Spirit who interlaces us together in spiritual community. The binding together of people in spiritual community can and does happen just about anywhere, whether at the office, a family gathering, a meeting of neighbors, or a high school prom. When there is this communion of people who would not necessarily be joined together otherwise, we see the Spirit at work creating community.

The Spirit’s communion-creating work is meant to be most evident within the church community, the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, the humanity of any of us can get in the way of healthy spiritual community. So even the church, whose members are supposed to reflect the divine communion, can be filled with do-si-doers who are disrupting the allemande left of the Spirit.

Now, let me clarify something here. There is a profound difference between someone who is selfishly disrupting the dance, and someone who just hasn’t figured out the steps yet. We’re all at a place of learning when it comes to the divine dance, so we all need to accept the reality there are times when we just don’t have a clue as to what we are doing. This is when we need to be surrounded by grace.

We need to realize the living Word is willing to start the set over anytime we get too tangled up to keep going. Abba never stops singing over us, and the Spirit always is at work to bring us together and keep us in tune with God and one another. So the group we are dancing with needs to have the grace to laugh off our stumbling faulty efforts and keep going, picking up where we left off and listening to the living Word as he gives us the next direction for the dance.

Keeping in step with Abba’s music and the living Word’s direction requires an alertness, a constant paying attention to what is going on within us and around us as the Spirit moves. The grace to truly love other human beings in real relationship really does require death and resurrection—a constant dying to our own agenda and moving in full agreement and participation with God in his, in harmony with all those around us.

Participating in the divine dance is also a journey in which each of us grows more and more skilled in following the call of the Word upon our lives and keeping in time with Abba’s song. The Spirit is ever at work, and we are free to embrace and obey the Spirit in each and every moment as he moves.

We have also been, in God’s love and grace, given the freedom to squelch, reject, and disobey the Spirit and the divine Word of God to us. Why would someone want to disrupt the dance when they could have such a really good time dancing with everyone? I don’t know, but we do it, don’t we?

Our human proclivity is to jitterbug in the middle of a promenade, or to start shouting our own calls for everyone to follow. Let’s just be honest about this—joining in the dance is often something we only want to do on our own terms. This is why God calls us to repentance and faith, and this is why Abba sent his Son to join with us in our dance.

So not only does the Word speak to us the steps of the dance, he also came and danced our steps with us, in us, and for us. God was not content to just sit up on the stage and call the dance—he came down into the crowd and began dancing with us. He knows how easy it is to miss a step, or to not understand an instruction for the next movement of the dance. He’s shared this dance with us in person, from the moment of his birth on through his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. He knows how hard it can be to stay in tune with Abba and obedient to the Spirit.

In Jesus Christ we find we are all experienced and skilled dancers. He, by his Spirit, keeps us in tune with Abba, and helps us recover when we miss a step or get out of sync with those around us. Jesus gives us hope that we will never be left out of the dance, and he, by the Spirit, enables us to freely join in this dance of God’s love and life.

This time of year we are reminded of the great gift of love God gave us in sending us his Son to dwell in our humanity, in our midst—Jesus Christ who is fully man and fully God. We are reminded of how God values each and every one of us, and includes us in his divine dance. The call to us at Christmas is to come and celebrate this precious gift of love. Embrace the wonder of Abba’s perfect gift, and join with us and others in dancing with delight to Abba’s glorious song of love.

May you all have a blessed and joyful Christmas!

Thank you, Abba, for singing your song of love over us, and for welcoming us through Jesus and by your Spirit into your divine dance. Grant us the grace to again embrace the joy of life with you, and to listen and obey your living Word and ever-present Spirit. Keep us in step with the beat of your heart, and move us to live in harmony with one another moment by moment. And do give us joy in your dance, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever!” Psalm 30:11–12 NLT

Plank Pulling

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By Linda Rex

Do you ever have one of those days when you don’t realize the plank in your eye is getting so big you are no longer seeing what’s right in front of you? Worst of all is when suddenly the plank is pulled out and the light of the truth about your own brokenness is so strong you are overwhelmed by it.

I had this experience the other day when talking with a group of friends. We were and are concerned about someone very dear to us who is doing something self-destructive and unhealthy. My heart was breaking about this, so I mentioned my real concern about her indifference to the harm she was doing to her own body. As I said this I reached across the table for my fifth handful of chocolate-peanut candies.

Later, in the quiet of my own home, I was praying about these concerns for this person and sharing my thoughts with Abba. I quite clearly saw that picture in my mind’s eye, of me reaching for another handful of goodies. God’s love for me understood my concerns for someone else, but would not let me off the hook about the harm I was doing to myself. A taste here and there is fine—but this was more than I probably should have been eating at the time.

Here’s the point: whatever harm I am doing to myself is no different than the harm someone else is doing to themselves. Yes, I need to love them enough to not enable them to continue in self-destructive behavior. But I also need to love Abba and the others in my life as well as myself enough to not continue in my own self-destructive behavior. It goes both ways.

God often brings us to these places, if we are willing, where we are faced with the reality of how our ways of living do not reflect the truth of who we are in Christ. The apostle James says it’s like looking at ourselves in a mirror:

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:23–25 NASB)

This perfect law of liberty—our true freedom in Christ to love God and love one another—is written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus Christ living his life in us by the Spirit who moves us to be the doers of this law of liberty. God pours his love into our hearts and we find ourselves loving others in ways we never could or would before.

Recognizing the indwelling presence of God in our hearts gives us hope. When we are burdened by our failures to love and receive love, we are comforted by God’s grace and compassion.

We are helped in this redemptive process by healthy relationships which are full of grace and understanding. Often in order to forgive ourselves or receive God’s forgiveness, we need to experience abundant grace and mercy from those around us.

One of the biggest struggles some of us may have is with receiving love and care from others which points out our need to grow in Christlikeness. On the one hand, we may like people taking care of us, but on the other, we don’t want them challenging us to change. We may want them to do good things for us, but we don’t like them asking us to assume responsibility for what is ours to do.

This is where the redemptive grace of God becomes a cause of offense to us rather than the sweet-smelling aroma of God’s blessing and favor. Over and over in our lives God draws near to us through people and circumstances, showing us the truth of who we are in him. The miracle of grace in the life, death, resurrection of God’s Son causes us to see our failures to love and receive love.

The gift of forgiveness in Christ Jesus says to each of us, whether we like it or not—you and I are in great need of forgiveness. But God doesn’t just leave us in that place of need. The realization of our need for forgiveness creates space in our hearts and lives for him to enter in and begin his transformation process. In opening ourselves up to receive God’s grace, we participate with Christ in the redemptive process.

One of the blessings poured out on us in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is the realization we are Abba’s beloved child in Christ Jesus. The Spirit enables us to experience the living presence of Christ and Abba in us, and he is at work transforming our hearts by faith. We see the evidence of God’s indwelling presence by the way we love God and love others as ourselves. Over time it becomes obvious to us and to others we reflect the nature of the living Lord.

As the Spirit works, he grows us more and more into the image of Christ. This means he brings us to deeper and deeper levels of self-awareness as well as to a greater awareness of the real Being God himself. Our relationship with God develops over time, and as it grows, we are brought into a greater realization of the size of the planks in our own eyes as well as a greater compassion and concern for the well-being of others.

Drawing nearer to God means we draw nearer to others, but it also may mean we come to see ourselves and God in new ways. The Spirit gives us greater insight into the deepest parts of our person, and there are times when we find we must once again repent, or turn back to Christ, and trust him to heal and restore us. Repentance and faith are an ongoing part of our life-long journey with Christ. As we continue to participate with Christ in our salvation through repentance and faith, he by the Spirit will continually bring us into a deeper, more authentic relationship with God and others.

Dear Abba, thank you for your faithful love. Thank you for freeing us to love you and love others through your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit who draws us deeper and deeper into intimate relationship with you. Grant us the heart and mind to turn to Christ and respond moment by moment to your Spirit’s work, so we are not offended by grace, but rather are transformed, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test.”
2 Corinthians 13:5–10 NASB

Owning Our Stuff

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By Linda Rex

Yesterday, as the sun peeked out occasionally from storm clouds and a cool breeze kept us wishing for a jacket, we sat outside the church and talked. Good News Fellowship was stepping out of our comfort zone and had invited the community to stop by for the administration of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Although no one from the community joined us for this event, or for the Community Ash Wednesday service which followed, it was still a good opportunity for us to reflect on the reality of what Christ has done and is doing in our lives.

As a denomination, in the past we have not celebrated this particular day or tradition. But our pastoral team felt it was an opportunity for us to open our doors and begin to step outside of them, offering others an opportunity to share with us the good news of what God has done and is doing in our lives.

As I studied the common practices for the observation of Ash Wednesday, I was struck by the focus on our humanity—“from dust you came, and to dust you will return”—and by the emphasis on repentance and penitence. As we move into the Lenten season, a season of fasting, prayer and repentance, Ash Wednesday provides a good marker and way of getting us focused on and looking forward to the events of Holy Week and the resurrection of Jesus.

It is a good thing to be reminded we are made from dust and will return to dust. There is a sense of humility which comes from realizing apart from the grace of God, we would have no existence at all. In fact, we only exist because of the love and grace of a God who determined before time began we would share in his glory.

I was reminded, though, that any thought of repentance or penitence needs to be kept within the reality of who God is, who Christ is, and who we are in him. We begin not by gazing at ourselves, our faults and failures, but first at the God who created us and made us his own. This God isn’t focused on our limitations or our weaknesses, but on the relationships he created us for, and on the love he has for us.

One of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday this year was Joel 2:1–2, 12–17. These particular verses leapt out at me: “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.” (Joel 2:12–13 NASB) The prophet Joel placed the call to repentance within the framework of who God is, just as God had described himself to Moses so many centuries before, a God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth (Exodus 34:6-7).

God indeed wants us to own our stuff, to face up to the truth of how we fall short as human beings. But he more importantly, wants us to face up to the truth of who he is—the kind of God who is loving and forgiving, not cruel, condemning and rejecting. In giving us his Son Jesus Christ, God didn’t push us away in our brokenness, but rather brought us close, joining with us in our sin and shame, washing it away, and drawing us into deeper relationship with himself.

In fact, one of the first things which occurred in Jesus’ life after his baptism, when he heard the words of blessing from his Father “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”, was being, in effect, “cast out” into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted of the devil. This forty days of fasting and testing, this penitence, was done on our behalf, for our sake. Jesus took the road of repentance we need to take, where we own our stuff and we choose to turn to God in faith rather than make our own way to glory.

As we enter this season of penitence, this Lenten season of reflection on our need for deliverance and salvation, I feel it is essential we begin with the reality of God’s love and mercy rather than just ending with it. Start with owning what is ours—the gift of forgiveness, and love which comes from the heart of our loving Father—as well as his Spirit who works in us our transformation and healing. And in the light of that, we look at our fallenness and need for grace.

When we keep these things in that order, then repentance is not a move toward despair and despondency, but rather a move toward joyful gratitude. We are compelled to say, “Thank you, Lord, for your mercy.” This is why I could not bring myself just to tell people as I administered the ashes “You came from dust and you will return to dust.” For me, it seemed to leave them in the dust in despair—that doesn’t seem to be what God had in mind. Why else would we have Christ at all?

To me repentance is an essential part of our walk as followers of Jesus Christ. We confess our fallenness, our brokenness, our ungodly ways of living and being. But we do it all in the context of the forgiveness which is already ours and available to us in Jesus Christ. We act as if we are forgiven and act as if we are healed. This is why I felt compelled to use these words in the administration of the ashes this year, “You came from dust, and you will return to dust. So thank the Lord Jesus for joining you in your dust and lifting you up to glory.”

Perhaps I will see things differently in the future—God is always working to heal, transform and renew. But in owning our stuff, I believe we not only need to own our fallen and broken ways of living and being, but also the heart of our loving Father who in Christ and by his Spirit says to us, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Owning our stuff means owning the reality we are forgiven, accepted and cherished by the God who calls us his own, and living and acting as though it were true.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the great love which compelled you to not only create us out of the dust of the earth and to breathe your life into us, but to also send your Son to join us in our humanity and to raise us up to live with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace of true repentance and faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 32
A psalm of David.
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the LORD has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty!

When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.

Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time, that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment. For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory.

The LORD says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”

Many sorrows come to the wicked, but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the LORD. So rejoice in the LORD and be glad, all you who obey him! Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!” (NLT)

Being Right vs. Being Rightly Related

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By Linda Rex

Have you ever had to come to terms with the reality you were absolutely, totally and completely wrong about something you were entirely convinced of? You were so sure you were correct, you were quick to tell anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) what you believed to be true while not realizing you were completely in error? Me, too.

One of the things I’ve learned from such experiences is not only a little humility, but also the reality enforcing our position of “being right” rarely if ever builds relationships. Instead, it often puts an intense strain on the relationship, especially if we make “being right” a condition of that relationship. It takes great humility and grace to place having a warm, loving relationship with someone of higher value than being in the right about something.

I used to be amused listening to the elderly couples in the nursing home when they got to telling stories. One would be telling quite a tale, while the other would be correcting all the facts as they went. Happy couples found a way to let the details go or to graciously overlook the failure at accuracy, or they would just laugh it off when one of them got it wrong. Other couples would start down the road to a fight, or would just be downright nasty to each other. They didn’t seem to value the relationship as much as they did “being right.”

Granted, there is a place for the true realities of life. And yes, there are things we do stand for which are worth standing for—those things which Jesus Christ stood for in his life, his death, his resurrection and ascension. When Jesus called us to follow him, he warned us ahead of time people would not necessarily welcome us or be willing to listen to and agree with the good news we are offering. In fact, he indicated we would share in his suffering and death because of what we believed to be true and right.

Being a person of integrity is something God calls each of us to be. We are to be honest, even to the place of the core of our being—truly and completely transparent and authentic, pure of thought and deed. The reason God wants us to be this way is because it is the way he is as Father, Son and Spirit, and we as human beings are made in his image to reflect his likeness. Part of that likeness is being people of honesty and integrity.

Do you realize, though, that God in Christ lives in relationship with millions of people who are dishonest and not authentic and transparent? And, believe it or not, God didn’t make “being right” a condition of his relationship with all the broken people we are—no, it is “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “God so loved the world” not while we were right, but while we were horribly, terribly wrong (John 3:16-17).

Being honest, truthful and authentic human beings is not a condition of our relationship with God, but a result of the relationship God forged with us in Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. Today God offers us his living Word, the Lord Jesus, and so by his Spirit opens the written Word of God to our understanding, and God’s implanted Word in our hearts creates in us Jesus’ own humility, honest, integrity and transparent authenticity.

God does not demand we be right in every instance, but rather invites us into relationship with himself, and works to transform our hearts and minds in the process so in the end we will come to discern and choose what is right in God’s sight. God focuses on life. We tend to focus on what is good and what is evil—the rules to follow so we can “be right”—do-it-yourself religion. God focuses on us being rightly related to him, and is working to make everything right in the end—which is something only he can do. He is the only One who is truly and always “right.”

This afternoon I was going through some old family correspondence. And I was reflecting on the painful and difficult path we trod as a family who parted ways theologically when I was in my thirties. I was informed how “wrong” I was on many occasions, but I tried very hard not to respond in kind. I did not preach. I did not cut off the relationship. I did my best to offer God’s unconditional love and acceptance no matter the response I got, all the way up until the relationship ended in death.

God honored this, for which I am grateful. Somehow, we were able to transcend the religious barrier and get down to the reality of building a loving relationship with one another in spite of it. Yes, there were awkward moments and uncomfortable conversations. But for the most part, there was a leaning toward one another rather than away from one another. And I hope someday to be able to finish our conversations in the presence of Jesus in glory. Then we will each know for a fact, where we were truly right and truly wrong. (And I imagine it will be both in each instance.)

I believe it is possible for us as human beings to transcend our differences, even the critical ones, by offering one another the love of God in Christ. The discussions we are facing today in our political and cultural arena are difficult and painful ones, and there must be by necessity, strong differences in beliefs, opinions and convictions. But we need to look to the One who created us in this way, differences as well as equality in person, value and being, in order to see how best to get beyond them into true unity.

The path none of us seem to want to take is the path Jesus trod and told us we were to follow him down. His path to unity took him straight through his sacrificial suffering and crucifixion into the grave. None of us want to lay any part of ourselves in the grave with him, nor do we want to admit that perhaps the only real truth there is, is the truth which is at the core of who we are as human beings—our identity lies in Christ and in him alone.

It is worth giving some real thought and prayer to the possibility each of us may have some places in our thinking, our beliefs, our way of living and working, in which we may be terribly, horribly wrong. This is the call God gives us to repentance—to turn around and go the other way—to start seeing God for Who he really is and ourselves for who we really are.

To confess this truth and to humbly admit our need for God’s grace—this is a good thing. On the other side, we will find ourselves in the midst of warm, loving relationship with God and others—and this is what we were created for in the first place. As image-bearers of God as Father, Son and Spirit, we reflect that divine relationship. And this is the best possible place we could find ourselves. And “being right” isn’t what gets us there—“being rightly related” does, and Jesus took care of that for us and offers it to us in the gift of his Spirit.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for calling us into relationship with you and making it possible for us to be rightly related with you and with others through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us each the grace and humility to be open to and willing to admit to the possibility we might be wrong, or at the least, in need of a change of mind and heart. You know the truth in every instance, and you know how things really are and need to be. So, do indeed, Lord, make all things right as you have promised you would in Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6–8 NASB

A Citizen’s Prayer

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by Linda Rex

One of the concerns I have as I watch the political debate and the community of faith’s response to it is the constant appeal to Christians in this nation to work through prayer and righteous living to make America great again. There is a subtle message beneath all of this rhetoric which says that somehow we are a special nation, the Israel of God, the chosen people, and if we just repent and turn back to God, everything will all be better. What I’m hearing is, all of this upheaval is just because America has turned away from God, so if all the Christians in America would humble themselves and pray, God will fix everything.

The main text used to defend this position of calling the nation (or the Christians in the nation) to prayer is 2 Chronicles 7:14: “[If] My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (NASB) I have some real concerns about the way this scripture is being used to promote what are, in my opinion, some very nationalistic agendas. I also believe the way it is presented forces us back upon ourselves as the means of getting God to change our circumstances and to remove the consequences of our choices.

The desire to have America great again I assume must be because we want to live freely and abundantly in this nation we call home. It would indeed be a good thing to be able to practice our faith and to enjoy our freedoms without fear or oppression—and for the most part, we’ve been able to do that in this country. But there are forces at work which are making it more and more difficult for us to do this in this country, and that is what drives this need to ensure our domestic felicity, so that our “happy home” will continue to be just that.

Whenever I hear the statement “Make America great again”, I cringe because I am reminded of how post-WWI Germany sought to make Germany great again. This was the cry of the Nazi’s which enabled them to gain political power, and enabled them to promote many of their agendas which otherwise may have been rejected by the German populace. Sadly, the German church at that time also got caught up in this nationalistic momentum to the point they gave the leadership of their church to Hitler himself, and began to promote his faith rather than the truths of the faiths as established by the early church. It was this battle Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to fight by remaining in Germany when he could have stayed safely in America.

The point is, we need to get rid of our nationalistic focus and turn back to Jesus Christ as being the central “Who” of this whole matter. Looking at this particular passage honestly, through sound exegesis, would help us to do that if we were willing. So let’s begin by reading the passage in the context in which it was originally written:

“Then the LORD appeared to Solomon at night and said to him, ‘I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a house of sacrifice. ‘If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayer offered in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that My name may be there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually.’” (2 Chronicles 7:12–16 NASB)

The first thing we see is this was a statement God made to King Solomon after his prayer at the dedication of the temple he built in Jerusalem. God was explaining he had chosen the temple as a place for sacrifices to be offered to him just as Solomon had asked him to. The Lord would hear and answer the prayers of his people Israel when they would humbly seek his face in prayer and turn away from evil. The God, whose Name is Father, Son and Spirit, placed his name upon that house and affirmed his eyes and heart would be there as well.

This whole conversation took place within the covenant relationship of God with his people Israel. This was a reaffirmation of that covenant in which God included this house of worship in his relationship with Israel out of his gracious love toward them. Nowhere in this conversation do we read anything about the nation of America—it did not exist back then, nor was it included at that particular moment in this conversation. The whole discussion was with regard to God’s covenant relationship with his chosen people, Israel, and his desire to love them and to receive their worship and prayer.

When we read the continuing story of God’s children Israel, we find they did not honor their part of their covenant with God, and in time even Solomon’s temple was overrun and destroyed. They did not have the heart and will to love and obey God. They did not humble themselves, repent and pray, or the destruction of the nation would have been delayed as it was in the time of King Hezekiah and King Josiah, who led God’s people into a place of repentance and renewal. Instead, Israel and Judah ended up losing everything God had given them in his gracious love.

This passage, we’ve seen, was a conversation God was having with the king of the nation of Israel with regards to a temple which was eventually destroyed and replaced with another one many years later. Some exiles made their way back, thanks to the Persian king Cyrus, and the temple and the city wall of Jerusalem were rebuilt. In time, a baby was born in Bethlehem, who was the true Son of God and would fulfill in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, all the promises made to Israel, for he stood in their place.

Jesus Christ came as the Israel of God, the Son of God, Abba’s Word, who was both God and man. We see Jesus, who had no sin, repenting and being baptized for his people Israel, and for us, and we see him sharing in Israel’s wilderness wanderings by facing the evil one during forty days of fasting in the wilderness of Judea. Jesus lived the life of obedience, humility and prayer Israel was called to live, but never was able to. In his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus fulfilled all of the covenant God had made with Israel—he did what they never were able to do.

Ultimately, we see Jesus after his resurrection, standing in the presence of God as high priest of Israel and of all humanity, bearing in his being the names of all people before Abba in the Spirit, being the One who is truly humble who prays in the Spirit and in truth for each and every person in our place and on our behalf. It is Jesus’ prayer which Abba hears and answers, and each and every prayer we give is caught up in Christ’s prayers and made acceptable to the Father.

In this same Christ, the barriers between human beings were and are torn down. We learn in Acts the early church had to face the reality God did not distinguish between Jews and Gentiles when it came to having a relationship with God or each other. All nationalism was thrown out the window and replaced with the reality we are all a part of the body of Christ by the Spirit. All were included in God’s grace when it was given, and all are called to faith in Christ and offered eternal life—knowing Abba and his Son whom he sent.

The life we live, no matter our race, ethnicity, nation, tribe and tongue, is bound up in Christ and is held in him in God. Whatever good deeds we do, whatever repentance we may muster up, all comes first from God through Christ in the Spirit. It is Christ’s prayers and intercession which will bring about change in America.

But Christ is concerned about a whole lot more than just this nation. He is concerned about all of humanity. And he is a whole lot more concerned about our spiritual transformation and the furtherance of his kingdom than he is about whether or not America is the most prosperous, paradise on earth. This world is passing away. But our relationship with God, whatever it is, transcends this physical world and will last beyond it. And this is what God wants us to invest our effort, time and energy in.

Abba has work he is doing through Christ in this world. He’s sent Christ on a mission of reconciliation with God and man to be worked out into every part of life by the Spirit. We can participate in this through our humility, repentance and prayer—but apart from Christ and the work of the Spirit, our humility, repentance and prayer is worthless. It’s just a bunch of hot air and will not change a thing, except to make us exhausted, and to fill us with disappointment when things don’t go as we expect.

In a nation obsessed with nationalism and power of the state, the apostle Paul instructed his people to pray for their leaders so they could live and preach the gospel in peace. He also reminded them their loyalty was to God first, and not to the nation. We are citizens of heaven, he said. These are words we can take to heart today, because we also are citizens of the kingdom of God, and are seeking a peaceful environment in which to preach and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But we need to see this as our participation in what Jesus Christ is doing in the world today as we share in his mission of reconciliation. It is his work as our intercessor and high priest which will make the difference in the world today. It is his Spirit who calls us back to him, to repentance and faith. It is Abba who pours into us and our world a different heart and mind. We share in the work of the Trinity as God brings about healing and change. In my mind, this is the heart of this passage, and how we should read and apply it today.

“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:1–4 NASB

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.” Philippians 3:20–21 NASB