restoration

Rending the Heavens

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By Linda Rex

November 29, 2020, ADVENT | HOPE—Last night I was watching a report by Nashville’s mayor in which he was describing the latest spike in COVID-19 cases and an upcoming mandated reduction in the size of gatherings. As you can imagine, my heart turned over. I’m not looking forward to the isolation and health problems this will bring about for so many, nor am I thrilled about the loss of income, business and other difficulties it will create for those already struggling.

In some ways, I can identify with the prophet Isaiah when he wrote:

“Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down,
That the mountains might quake at Your presence—
As fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil—
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-9 NASB)

What is interesting about the rest of this passage, though, is how Isaiah didn’t focus on the glorious entry of God into the human sphere to exact his fiery judgment, but rather on God’s deliverance for us from our human proclivity to sin and our futile efforts to do the right thing. This one-of-a-kind God, who Isaiah describes as the potter, is called upon to do the work only he can do for and in us as his clay (Isaiah 64:1–9).

The psalmist in Psalm 80 acknowledges that the only hope for any of us is for him to smile upon us and restore us. This request is repeated three times—emphasizing a passionate desire for God’s grace and good will to be showered upon us. At the end of this psalm, he writes:

“Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand,
Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.
Then we shall not turn back from You;
Revive us, and we will call upon Your name.
O LORD God of hosts, restore us;
Cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.”
(Psalm 80:(1-7) 17-19 NASB)

Do you see it? Here is a hint of how God is going to save his people—something related to a “son of man” whom God places his hand on and makes strong. Our only hope for God’s grace, restoration and renewal begins with God himself and his desire for and accomplishment of our transformation and healing through the Son of Man.

In 1 Corinthians 1:3–9, when the apostle Paul speaks of the final revealing of Jesus Christ, he affirms that we are found blameless not by our own efforts, but because God is faithful. God’s faithfulness is expressed to us in his gift of grace through Jesus Christ which enriched us in speech, knowledge, and spiritual gifts, and in the testimony of Christ being confirmed in us. He has called us into and has ensured we can participate in Christ’s fellowship by the Spirit with his Father.

So often we look into passages regarding the coming of Christ in glory and begin to impress upon them our private expectations and opinions rather than seeing them from God’s point of view. We see the world around us as very messy, filled with evil and sin, and right away call for God to rend the heavens and come down in a dramatic deliverance. We can easily diminish the incredible reality of what God has already done for us in the entrance of his Son into the world in the form of a baby in a manger.

We’re entering into the Advent season, and I am reminded of that beautiful night when the shepherds were quietly tending their flocks on the Judean hillsides. Suddenly an angel appeared—“rending the heavens”—with an incredible message that would change the world forever—the Messiah had come in the person of an infant lying in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem. The angels gathered around and celebrated this good news, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14 NASB).

Later on, this Savior, as he faced his upcoming death on the cross and resurrection, spoke of the transition which would occur between the kingdom of God which he was inaugurating in his passion and that glorious day when he would come in power, ushering in the new heavens and the new earth. He knew there would be a substantial time lapse between his ascension and the day of his final arrival, and he wanted his followers to stay in a state of continual readiness and diligence, especially with regards to sharing the good news of what Christ did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

What Jesus forged for us in our humanity tore open our cosmos and set it upon a new footing—in the all-ready/not-yet of God’s kingdom, he has made all things new. We have an incredible hope that bursts into our gloomy sin-laden world and lays bare all our futile efforts at being good and forces us to a crisis—where will we put our faith? Will we continue to trust in our human efforts to rule ourselves—to count on our 201 ways to solve our own problems and save ourselves? Will we keep to our own agenda or will we submit ourselves to God’s plan for our lives? Is Christ—the way he really is—good enough for us? Or do we need to add something to the simple reality of his grace and truth?

Our attention does not need to be on some particular plan or outline of end-time events, but solely on Jesus. Christ is our life. We participate through baptism in his death and resurrection, renewing this covenant relation as we take the bread and the wine in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith. We live each day in attentiveness to Jesus’ coming and presence—both in his presence here and now by the Spirit at work in this world, but also in anticipation of his coming glorious presence at the renewal of all things. As things grow more difficult for us, as we struggle to stay the course, we can hold ever more tightly to the reality that Christ has come, he is come now by the Spirit, and one day he will come in glory. We have every reason to hope. Maranatha—even so come, Lord Jesus!

Father, thank you for the grace you have given us in your Son, for the work you already accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and are working out in this world even now by your Holy Spirit. Keep us ever diligent, ever faithful, attentive to the end to our precious Lord Jesus by your Spirit. Amen.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:3–9 NASB

See also Mark 13:24–37.

Witnesses to God’s Grace and Love

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By Linda Rex

May 24, 2020, 7th SUNDAY OF EASTER/ASCENSION SUNDAY—Last week in this blog we wrestled with the reality that what we believe influences how we respond to what is happening in our lives. We often do not realize, nor do we intentionally deal with, beliefs we may hold dear which are actually undermining our ability to be relationally connected in healthy ways.

One of the beliefs which often keeps us closed within ourselves is the belief that we are alone, that no one understands what we have been through or are going through right now. This is one of the reasons that support groups are part of the healing process for people who struggle with addictions. The insidious lie that no one understands—that we are all alone in this world, that we can and need to handle this issue all by ourselves—keeps us locked in unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and living.

We may struggle with opening up to others because everyone we have done this with in the past has betrayed us or failed us in some way. Or, in our life, we may experience safe relationships as anything but safe. But whether we like it or not, the path to our genuine healing lies on the continuum of healthy relationships with safe people, and we have to stop isolating in order to find renewal and restoration.

On Ascension Sunday in the Christian church we celebrate an event in Jesus’ life which directly speaks to this issue. For many years, Christ’s ascension really didn’t mean a lot to me. My church taught me he did send the Spirit to help out the people he called to himself, but that didn’t really seem to help much with the everyday issues of our lives. Our church’s view back said that when he left, he went home and left us all here to struggle until he came to punish the people in the world for failing to live rightly—that is except all the sainted people who managed to keep all the old covenant laws and observe all the days correctly. Back then I desperately hoped I would be counted as one of the obedient few.

But now, every year on Ascension Sunday, my associate Pastor Jan invites us after church to join her in the parking lot for a visible lesson on Christ’s ascension into glory and what that means for every human being who has ever lived. We cannot gather this year for Ascension Sunday and to eat William’s fried fish, but we can take some time to reflect on scriptures we will read on this day. They tell us how Jesus, after he had risen from the grave, spent forty days walking and talking with his disciples. His glorified humanity was still tangible but somehow different—he ate and drank, cooked fish at a campfire, and he walked through walls. He didn’t stop being human when he was resurrected. Instead, his humanity was glorified—transformed by his indwelling presence as God in human flesh.

He spent these forty days after the resurrection opening the disciples’ minds to the Old Testament scriptures, explaining how everything which had happened to him had been predicted and now was fulfilled. There was still some misunderstanding by the disciples—they were still looking for him to restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). But instead of restoring the kingdom of Israel as they wanted him to, he told them they were to wait for his Spirit to come and that they would be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and going throughout Judea, to Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.

The kingdom which Jesus was inaugurating had a lot to do with who he is now—God in human flesh. The uniting of the divine life with our creaturely human existence meant that our turning away from God to ourselves and the things of the earth no longer defines us. We now have the capacity to participate in the oneness in which the Father, Son, and Spirit dwell. In the sending of his Spirit, Jesus enables those who believe to participate in the divine life and love. They experience God’s indwelling presence now, being empowered by the Spirit to bear witness to the living Lord Jesus who is seated at God’s right hand in glory.

We find in Jesus Christ—and this is the magnificence of the ascension—someone who is God who has experienced what it is like to be an infant, a child, a teen, and an adult. This is a God who knows the feeling of being held by his mother, taught by his father and other teachers, and being called names by those who questioned his parentage. He has experienced tears, the death of dear friends, and betrayal by those he loved. He knows in a real and personal way what it means to be human and how difficult it is for us to live in relationship with one another and with God.

Jesus, who is still God in human (but glorified) flesh, holds our humanity in the presence of our heavenly Father, and sends the Spirit. As we place our faith in him, Christ by the Spirit empowers us to bear witness to the Father’s love expressed to all humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. We do this not only by our words, but most significantly by our lives lived in unity of the Spirit—expressing the oneness of the other-centered love we were created to reflect and participate in as image-bearers of our Creator.

We were created for relationship and it is in healthy spiritual community that we find renewal and restoration. Many of our emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds occur within the context of relationship, and it is in this same context where our best healing occurs. The ascension of Jesus Christ teaches us that undergirding all other relationships, there is a Person who is intimately familiar with our situation, who shares our wounds, and who is closer to us than any other human being could ever be. In Jesus we have an advocate and helper like no other.

As we place our faith in Jesus, we begin to experience the reality of our inclusion in the divine life and love. We are joined in union and communion with the Father through the Son in the Spirit, so that all of life is now lived in participation with them. We share in their mission in this world—to testify of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus Christ. God, by his Spirit, calls us into spiritual community—what we commonly call the church, though spiritual community can exist in many other ways.

Church is an unpleasant topic for many. It has and is often the cause of many relational hurts. But that is not God’s reason for drawing people together into spiritual community. It is meant to be the place where Jesus is present in this world, testifying to the love and grace of God. It is meant to be the place where people encounter safe relationships in which they can find healing and wholeness. God calls people together, not so they can impress everyone with how good they are or so they can protect themselves from being contaminated by sin, but so that the other-centered love they express to one another and to the community they live and work in is a living testimony to the love of God expressed to us in Christ, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Perhaps it is time to reflect on where we are in our relationship with God and with the other people in our lives. Are we intimately connected with the God who has gone to such lengths to be intimately connected with us? What are we placing between us to keep us from opening ourselves up to his love and grace? And if we have placed our faith in Christ, is this manifest in the way we live with those around us? When others look at us and how we interact with them, do they see an expression of God’s other-centered love? Our reflections should not be discouraging, because on God’s side—all is done. Jesus stands, hands out-stretched, inviting us on the journey—knowing exactly what we need in this moment to move deeper into his love and grace, and to find healing and renewal.

Abba, thank you for loving us so, for drawing us to yourself. Thank you, Jesus, for going through all that you did and for bringing us into glory in your resurrection. Holy Spirit, please finish in us what you have begun in Jesus—we are open. We receive your living Presence, God, and seek to bear witness to your grace and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” John 17:1-5 NASB

“… and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” Luke 24:46-51 NASB

Turn Us Again to Yourself

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By Linda Rex

LOVE
December 22, 2019, 4th Sunday of Advent
—I was reading a devotional this morning which used the story in the gospels of a man who was bound by demons and wandering about in the tombs, in the region of the dead. This man broke any chains that held him, but when Jesus spoke to him, he found true freedom.

How often I have felt like this man, wandering about in my own personal chains, unwilling to be shackled by the bonds of love God has for me. How often I have harmed myself rather than submitting myself to the love and grace of God as expressed to me in his will for my life! I know I am not alone in this—I see it often in people around me. It is our human condition apart from God’s merciful intervention.

One of the most basic steps in facing our addictions and being freed from them is coming to understand that apart from the intervention of a “higher power’, we cannot be free. We can try harder and harder, we can work the plan faithfully, but we have to eventually end up at the place where we realize in a deep and significant way that apart from divine intervention, we have no hope of ever being any different than we are right now.

God’s method of intervening in our circumstances did not involve him being a distant, cold and uninvolved deity. Nor did he seek vengeance on us for our pitiful failures at trying to be what we believe we need to be in order for him to accept us. God’s way of turning our hearts back to him, of restoring our relationship with him, was to enter into our very existence as a human being and to personally turn us around back into face to face relationship with himself.

Historically, the nation of Israel was in many ways like you and me. They were brought into relationship with God, but they refused to let him be the center of their life. For a while they would live as his people, but in time they would turn away from him, back into their idolatry and hedonism. They would reap the results of living life on their own terms, come to the end of themselves, and then turn again to him—for a while.

But this was not a surprise to God. None of this is. He knew long before our cosmos existed that we would have this proclivity to turn away from him to other things. He knew it would require his personal involvement to restore us back to our original design so that we could be the image-bearers of God he intended us to be.

We hear the cry in Psalm 80:2b-3, 7, 17-19 of the psalmist Asaph asking three times, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” Prophetically he pointed to a Son who would be the source of our genuine revival, the only means by which any of us will be saved. Our only hope of being people who would never abandon God would be for God to himself turn our hearts back.

So we have in Isaiah 7:14 the promise of a virgin bearing a son who would be called Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us.’ What a thrilling promise! This Advent season, as we gaze upon the nativity scenes we see around us, as we are reminded of the reason for the season, we are given a hope for something more than our constant failures to love. We are able to have peace of mind and heart because we know God has sent us a Savior—someone who has done and will do what we cannot and will not do. We are able to have joy, because we are celebrating the reality that God has come and stands in our stead, on our behalf, filling us with his real presence in the Holy Spirit.

Advent reminds us that when Israel had absolutely no hope of ever getting anything right with God ever again, God did not forsake her. He came himself, in the womb of a virgin, allowing himself to be carried as a promise to his people of their deliverance. Advent reminds us that we are not left abandoned in our sin and selfishness—there is a Savior who is one of us and yet is God himself—he has come to bind us once and for all to God with unbreakable cords of love and grace.

The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, and today we as his people are pregnant with his presence by the Holy Spirit. God is even at this moment working deliverance in this world—preparing for the day when all things will be transformed completely and God will finally dwell forever with humankind. Our failures to love, our sinfulness and the evil which so often enslaves us, do not and will not stand in the way of God accomplishing what he set out to do from before the beginning of this cosmos. He will finish what he has begun—he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Advent teaches us love in a profound way—of God’s desire to be near to us, so near that he actually enters into our human existence himself. The presence of God in our humanity is the greatest gift of love God could ever give. He knew the cost of this gift would be the suffering and death of his Son, but he gave it anyway. He knew the rejection of his Spirit which would occur, but he gave his Spirit anyway. God freely gives—do we receive?

Whatever struggles we may have with our addictions or failures to love God and others, we find in Jesus that God is present and real in the midst of them. He is at work, as we are willing, to heal, restore, and renew. We are given Jesus Christ—he is in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. What is our response?

I’ve often thought that Joseph was an incredible man. He had betrothed himself to a young virgin who turned out to be pregnant with someone else’s child. He could have made a public spectacle of her—but he was so loving in not wanting to do this. And when God told him to marry her anyway, he did it (Matthew 1:18–25). His humility and sacrificial spirit bear witness to the humility and sacrificial Spirit of God himself. Will we in this same Spirit of humility and sacrifice receive the wonderful Gift of God in our humanity? Will we surrender to the reality we are in desperate need of God, and God in Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and will come again one day?

Thank you, Abba, for loving us so well. It was not enough for you to create all things, to set everything in motion, and to walk away. You dove right in, taking our very humanity upon yourself in your Son Jesus, renewing us from the inside out. Thank you for sending us your Spirit, enabling us to be one with you, and to be healed, restored, and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“… concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power 1by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God…” Romans 1:3-7a NASB

Approaching the Judge

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By Linda Rex

October 20, 2019, Proper 24—When I read this parable by Jesus about the judge “who did not fear God and did not respect man,” it reminded me of the day I was looking for an official document online, preparing for something I needed to do at the courthouse. I came across some instructions which people were to follow when they entered the courtroom to have their case handled by the judge. It included such things as what they were to wear and how they were to address the judge.

I have no idea if these standards are unique to just this particular courtroom, but it seemed wrong to me that a person’s court defense should be at all dependent upon their ability to obtain a white shirt, a suit and tie, or a belt. I believe a person at any strata of society should be able to come to court and get the justice they need without having to go shopping first. What kind of justice is it if it is dependent upon a person’s ability to show up in appropriate attire?

Jesus’ story about the woman who came to the judge to have her case heard was meant to teach his disciples to pray and to not give up when the prayer was not immediately answered. In his story, the widow persistently sought the judge’s help, not giving up when he at first said no. And because of her persistence, he eventually gave in and helped her only because he wanted her to leave him alone. Jesus reminded his followers they were even more likely to be heard than was this widow woman.

The thing is, a lot of us approach our heavenly Father as though he were this kind of judge. We often assume that God has better things to do than to listen to our needs and to help us. We may believe we have to be dressed in our Sunday best, looking and acting our best when we approach him. We assume, however wrongly, that God is indifferent to our struggles and our suffering, and so we approach prayer—if we do it—as a last-ditch desperate appeal to a God who could really care less about what we are going through.

But Jesus came to show us an Abba who cares for us deeply, who is so concerned about our every need and desire that he came to us himself in the person of his Son, making “Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). The Son of God came to dwell within our humanity and to experience the full spectrum of our human existence, so we might participate in his perfect relationship with his Father both now and for all eternity.

Our heavenly Father wants to hear our prayers. He wants to know what our struggles are, and what we enjoy, and what things are important to us. Just as a mother will take the time to listen to her children tell about their school day, God enjoys hearing us talk about what is going on in our lives. God is greater than any human parent—he cares deeply about what happens to us and wants to rescue us and help us. We need to think of God as judge in terms of him being a loving, gracious parent, not an indifferent, cold magistrate. Our judge joined us in our humanity to experience our human existence so his judgment is always tempered with grace and love.

My daughter had a minor accident a while ago and felt terrible about ruining the car. I tried to encourage her by telling her about my first accident and that I was extremely grateful—a broken mirror and dented fender was nothing in comparison to the damage I did to my parents’ car. It was a late night in southern California, and I was driving from a girlfriend’s house in Pasadena to our home in Monrovia. I accidentally ran my dad’s old Ford Falcon stationwagon up onto the curb of the center meridian. In my efforts to get it off there, I pulled too hard and ran it up against the righthand curb, breaking the front axle.

A kind older couple took me to a nearby gas station. I used a quarter in the slot of the payphone—yes, I am that old—and called the police and then I called my dad. I dreaded telling him what had happened because I knew he couldn’t afford to fix the car. But when he answered his first question was, “Are you aldl right?” My dad taught me some great lessons that night, and in the days following, about love, grace, and forbearance.

Even though I was concerned about my dad’s possible negative reaction to my phone call, I did know one thing—my dad loved me and wanted what was best for me. I also believed he was the only one who could really help me the way I needed to be helped at that moment. I knew that if I called him, he would intervene to make the situation right, helping me through this difficulty.

In the same way, what we believe about our heavenly Father needs to line up with the truth about who he is. What we believe about Abba influences how we deal with the difficulties in our lives and who we turn to when we need to be defended, protected, or provided for. We need to believe our heavenly Father loves us and wants to vindicate, defend, protect, and help us. We are called to trust in his perfect love and grace, believing he wants what is best for us and will do everything he possibly can to make things right.

This is why Jesus ends this story with the comment, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” What we believe about who God is impacts how we pray. Do we believe God wants our best, that he is at work in this world bringing about what is the most loving and caring result to our circumstances? Will we trust in God’s perfect love as demonstrated to us in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ, believing his heart toward us is ever and always good? Will we persist in prayer, not giving up on God when the answer doesn’t immediately come, trusting that God has good reasons for the delay? And when God seems to be saying no, will we trust that this is in our best interests and will work in the end for our good?

We are so blessed that through Jesus and in the Spirit we can at any moment approach God with whatever need or concern, or even joy and gratitude, we may have. There is room for all of our human experience in our relationship with God because Jesus was there first, going through it all in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Our divine Judge, Jesus Christ, was also the judged One—he stands in our place, on our behalf. This should give us great confidence as we approach God and seek his defense and protection, his provision and restoration. And it should give us good reason to persist in prayer when the answer isn’t what we at first hoped for.

Divine Judge of all, thank you for having taken our humanity upon yourself, for experiencing all of our human existence, and for intervening on our behalf whenever we ask. Grant us the grace to see you as the God you are—gracious and loving—and to trust you enough to ask and keep on asking when we are in need. May we fully trust you at all times, believing your heart toward us is good, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?’” Luke 18:6-8 NASB

Sharing Our Wounds

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By Linda Rex

September 22, 2019, Proper 20—One of the most painful things I have experienced over the years is going through the consequences of a bad decision or decisions I have made, especially with regards to my significant relationships. It seems as though some consequences never end, even though we may have changed or done our best to make amends for the error done.

We often believe, however incorrectly, that if we just do the right thing from now on, our life will be much better. I’d like to say that is the case, but sometimes we have to go through the hard and messy stuff for a while before we see the benefits of changing the way we live.

The reality is that as broken human beings, our bent is toward doing things in a self-centered, self-preserving, self-fulfilling way. When we discover that life wasn’t meant to be lived with ourselves at the center and try to live a Christ-centered life, we often discover there are shackles and traps we have not seen that we have been caught in that we cannot escape easily and on our own.

As human beings, life can be wonderful, and then it can be hell. Sometimes the hell in our lives is the result of our own choices. Sometimes it is the result of the choices of those around us. Either way, we do have occasions when we wrestle with the ugliness of our broken humanity and the consequences of sin.

Here in the Western world today we do not always see the immediate consequences of our choices. One can live for many years on the edge financially before we finally hit the bottom. A person can play by the rules a long time and successfully hide an addiction, but in due time, the truth will come out, exposing a life of deceit, unfaithfulness, and/or worse.

Some types of our brokenness is socially acceptable and so we see no need to change anything, not realizing the harm we are doing to ourselves or to others. But consequences happen. We will at some point have to deal with the truth about God and about ourselves and come face-to-face with the reality we are not meant to be at the center of everything—Christ is.

The people of Judah came to a place where all they trusted in and counted on was going to be swept away. Starvation, war, enslavement—these were the consequences they were facing. Jeremiah grieved with the suffering of his people. He knew the sin of the people was very grave—unfaithfulness to their covenant God—and the consequences they were beginning to feel would only get worse. Why could they not see the path they were on? Jeremiah mourned—he lamented the fallen condition of his people, longing for their healing and renewal.

What Judah was called by Jeremiah to see was that, just as he shared their pain and suffering, so God also shared their pain and suffering. It was not enough for God to look upon his people from a distance and see them suffering the consequences of their choices. No, at the perfect time, God came and actually entered into the midst of their suffering. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus was Abba’s ultimate answer to the suffering of his people. Even though God’s people could never seem to get things right, still God would come himself and set things right.

Truly, our sinfulness as human beings is a sickness only the divine Physician can heal. The apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. We cannot and do not get ourselves right with God—Jesus came and made us right with God, and makes us right as we trust in his perfect, complete gift of himself in our place and on our behalf.

What we have is a Physician who is also the one who is sick. He became the patient, bearing the full weight of our illness and the consequences of our sin, including death on a cross, and brought us complete restoration and renewal in his very person.

When Jesus rose from the grave and ascended to his Father, he brought our broken humanity to a new place—to the place where by faith we live eternally in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit from his Father so we could share in his perfect relationship with Abba and be able to live the other-centered, Christ-centered lives we were created to participate in.

This does not mean that when we trust in Christ that all the consequences of our failures to love magically disappear. It seems we often have to wrestle with these for years as part of our calling to share in the sufferings of Christ. There are times when God graciously removes the consequences of our choices—healing venereal disease, curing alcoholism, or removing a hunger for cocaine. But this is not always the case. Sometimes our battle against such pulls is the Physician’s very cure and is the means by which he intends us to participate in him providing the cure for others with the same struggle.

The biggest take-away here is, God is present in the midst of our consequences. He may or may not remove or minimize them—we should ask, but accept he may not. He shares our struggle and our pain—as we allow. And when we trust in Christ and are baptized, we are placed within the body of Christ to share this journey with others who are facing the same struggles. We are meant to participate in a spiritual community—a hospital for sinners, you might say—where we are all, as broken human beings, finding our healing and renewal in Christ.

We have a divine Physician who is on call for us 24/7 and who cares about the smallest concern of our lives. We probably ought to listen to him and follow his guidelines for the care of our souls—to feed and nourish properly the temple of the Spirit and our minds and hearts. We probably ought to live the way he created us to live—loving him wholeheartedly and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

But at any moment, no matter the joy or pain, he is present in the Spirit to share what we are going through, to help us bear whatever we face, even if it is the consequences of our bad choices. He never meant for us to go through life alone, but always to be at the center, sharing every part of it with us.

Dearest Abba, thank you for giving us your Son as our on-call Physician, who is always present and available to us at any time. Thank you, Jesus, for coming yourself and bearing our troubles and trials, and freeing us from the shackles of evil, sin, and death on the cross, rising to bring us all to share in your unity with the Father in the Spirit. Turn our hearts to you, Lord Jesus, to trust you in faith. Fill us anew with your Spirit, giving us the heart to live in the truth of who we are as image-bears of our God who is love. Amen.

“I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief. Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for the wounds of my people?” Jeremiah 8:21-22 NLT

Paying the Price of Being Nice

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by Linda Rex

Over the years I have had to learn the difficult lesson that sometimes it pays better to stop being so nice to people. Being nice can actually make things more difficult and painful rather than creating a place of safety and healing for those involved. In fact, being nice can actually cause a dangerous situation to continue which needs to be made right.

But being nice isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, right? God would want us to be nice people wouldn’t he? Isn’t God always a nice God?

And being nice can seem like the Christian thing to do. If someone is a follower of Christ, they will always be nice, right? They will never be mean or unkind. Jesus was always nice, going around healing people and helping people when he lived on earth, wasn’t he? Or was he?

What about when we are parenting our kids? We may want to be a good parent, so we are always kind, and thoughtful, and generous to our kids. We may give them everything they want, and never say anything to correct them, thinking we are being a good parent by doing so. When they get in trouble in school, we may take their side instead of allowing them to experience the painful consequences of bad behavior. But when we do this is it really the most loving and best thing we can do for them?

Parents may find it very difficult to correct their children and to hold them accountable—it just feels heartless to make a child experience the consequences of their bad choices. Putting limits on a child, and enforcing them, and dealing with the accompanying tears and frustration is not a task for the faint of heart. It’s tough being a parent sometimes.

And it may appear that when a person speaks difficult and painful truth, they are being cruel and heartless, when actually they are doing their best to make a bad situation better. Everyone needs someone in their life who won’t just be nice, but who will speak the truth in love.

If you have a friend who will never tell you the truth about your hurtful behavior, are they truly your friend? If your friend is so busy being nice to you they don’t tell you the truth about how insulting and rude you were to someone the other day, are they really doing what is best for you? Are they really loving you with God’s love?

And what about God’s love? We’re all okay with God being a nice God, giving us so many things, and being good to us, as long as he never makes any demands of us and never tells us when we are wrong. We are happy to have a nice God, but not a God who has the right, and the responsibility, to correct us, and to guide and teach us. As long as God stays on his side of the universe and leaves us alone, but makes sure our life is happy and blessed, we like God.

But I’m not so sure God is a nice God. I’m more inclined to believe God is a loving, compassionate God who has a passion for his children becoming the beautiful, Christlike creatures he initially created us to be. God’s heart toward us is not that our life be easy and convenient, but that we grow up into the fullness of the image of God we were created to bear.

I tend to believe God isn’t as concerned with keeping us happy as he is helping us to be transformed into the image of his Son. Sometimes the process we must go through includes difficulty and pain and suffering. We experience the consequences of our behavior, our words and our choices, and we experience the consequences of the things other people say and do. We experience life in a broken world full of broken people, and this is the crucible in which God forms us into new creatures.

I am a firm believer, though, that there is nothing we go through in this life which God cannot redeem or restore, when and as he so chooses. Those unjust and hurtful things people have done to us or said to us over the years are not ignored by God. In his own time and way, he works to make everything right in the end. In Christ who became sin for us, he takes all these things and redeems them, transforming them into a means for accomplishing his Christ-like perfection in our character and way of being.

We can participate in this process of renewal and restoration by allowing God to use our brokenness and pain as a means of helping others to heal and be restored. We respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives to heal us and comfort us, and then we turn to others who are suffering and in pain, and share with them the gift which God has given us.

Sometimes healing requires the painful process of removing what is causing the pain—surgery is sometimes necessary in order for healing to occur. This can be true even with regards to our emotional pain. What we do not deal with, we carry around with us, and it often causes difficulty for those around us. So we need to own our stuff, and face it, and get help with it if need be. This is why we have counselors and other people God has gifted to help us with emotional, mental and spiritual struggles and wounds. These are people who will tell us the difficult things we need to hear, while listening to the horrendous things we need to say.

In other words, we need people in our lives who aren’t so much interested in being nice as they are interested in helping us be whole. We need friends or companions on our journey through life who are real, genuine, honest and compassionate. We don’t need people who are nice all the time, but rather who are willing to take the risk of speaking the truth in love, and standing by us when life gets tough. And not only do we want to have these types of people in our lives, but these are the kind of people God is calling us to be.

As parents, we can be people who are more interested in our children growing up to be honest, faithful, compassionate, and genuine people, than keeping them happy and not ever disappointing them. As parents, we can allow our children to suffer, to grieve, and to struggle, while at the same time, helping them to bear up under what they are not able to bear on their own. We can encourage them to take risks rather than taking all their risks for them in their place. We can do things alongside them in such a way that eventually they are able to do them on their own without our help—and this may mean allowing them to struggle and fall down in the process.

In other words, we will all be healthier people, with healthier friends and families, if we would stop being so nice and start being truly loving. We are able to do this because this is the nature of God in us—the God who is so genuinely loving he was willing to join us in our mess and become one of us. This God who lives in us by his Spirit is the God who confronted evil and sin in sinful man by taking our broken humanity upon himself and redeeming it. God was too nice to be nice to us—he became sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God in him.

This God by the Spirit tells us what it looks like to live in true spiritual community. He tells us to avoid living in ways which are hurtful to others, and names what those are in his Word. He by the Spirit enables us to have the courage to speak the truth in difficult situations, and to handle the meltdown which occurs when we directly address unhealthy behaviors and words. This God, who may not always seem to be nice is the God who is Christ in us, and who enables us to stop being nice and to start being truly loving and compassionate in how we live and what we say.

Thank you, God, for not being nice to us—for not allowing us to continue in our broken and unhealthy ways of living and being. Thank you for joining us in our humanity, and forging for us a new humanity which reflects your divine life and love. Grant us the grace to respond to your transforming work and to stop being nice, and start being truly loving and giving–in your name, Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.” 1 Jn 4:7–9 NASB

Stopping the Hiding

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

By Linda Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking it Out

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by Linda Rex

One of the lessons I’m still learning in life is how to handle interpersonal issues in a healthy way. For example, someone in my life says or does something hurtful or causes a serious problem for me or someone else. How do I respond? How do I deal with this?

As a pastor I think that sometimes people use me as the go-to person in these situations. It is common for someone to come to me with “he said this to me and that was wrong” or “she was so hateful to me—you need to talk to her.” It’s as though I’m supposed to be carrying around a big stick so I can “whomp” anyone who gets out of line. Even though there are times when I may feel like a good whomping is in order, I do not believe that’s what God would have me do.

Another thing people do in these situations is to talk to everyone else in their circle of family or friends, making sure that everyone knows what’s going on. But they never go to that person who was at fault and try to talk with them about it. Sadly, in some families and social groups, this is the most common way of dealing with issues. I’ve learned by personal experience this is one of the most destructive ways of handling a problem—and sadly, in a lot of cases, the person who was at fault never even realized they had hurt someone and if they had they would have made every effort to make it right.

In any case, when someone says or does something hurtful, two things for sure come into play. First, we are called by God to love unconditionally and to offer them grace. It is imperative that we create an atmosphere in our relationship with that person, however strained that relationship may be, in which they may feel free to be real, and in which they know and are reassured they are loved and accepted.

Secondly, it is important that we promptly, but at an appropriate time, go to that person and do our best to speak the truth in love to them. This needs to be done with “I feel” language not accusatory language. We can talk to them about how specific words and deeds affected us, and describe the harm we feel that they did. This gives the person an opportunity to see and feel the pain they caused and to consider a change of heart, mind and behavior.

If we never tell someone the truth about their hurtful words and behavior, we deprive them of the opportunity to grow in Christlikeness. This is not loving. If we tell everyone else about what they’ve said and done, we’ve destroyed the spiritual fellowship God has called us to live in, creating suspicion, distrust, and a host of other unnecessary evils. This is definitely not loving, nor is it gracious.

Christ says that if this person won’t hear us, then we are to find a trusted confident or two who would be willing to go with us to that person to talk. The foundation of this whole meeting needs to be grace while speaking the truth in love. Reconciliation and restoration, the redemption of the relationship, is the goal. If they will not hear us, that is when we call on the elders of the church to assist. But the purpose or goal does not change throughout this whole process.

There is a time and place for others to join in the reconciliation/restoration process. One of the reasons for this is that there are relationships that are for the most part one-sided. In some relationships, one of the people involved doesn’t feel that they have a voice or that it is safe to speak the truth. This may be because they have given that right or freedom away by passivity. Or it may be due to abuse. Either way, there is an appropriate time for advocacy in this process of reconciliation/restoration.

Healing and restoring human relationships takes time and effort. There must be a commitment on both sides to working things out, and a willingness to concede wrongdoing. This requires a deep humility and an inner integrity that will not fudge the truth or try to self-justify. Not everyone is up to this task. But it is a necessary and essential part of life in a spiritual community.

As members of a spiritual community, when we see two people at odds with one another, we should feel the brokenness in that relationship ourselves. This should motivate us to encourage reconciliation and restoration within that relationship. Because what happens to our brothers and sisters impacts us as well. We are all sharers in Christ and participate with one another through the Spirit. To allow the evil one to cause division and harm within the community, is to participate in darkness not in the Light. And we don’t want to do that.

Thankfully, this is not a task that we take on all by ourselves. In fact, we read in scripture that Jesus is the Mediator between us and God, and between us and each other. He took on our humanity so that whatever divisions may exist between us become moot—we all are joined together now in an unbreakable bond. The Spirit also works as our intercessor—he binds us together and works incessantly to create unity and peace within our relationships.

I have found that the best solution to relationship problems begins in a relationship with God through prayer. When I take a relational problem to God and ask him to intervene, I am often surprised by the joy of finding the problem resolved in a way I never expected. When I see Jesus’ description of how relational problems are resolved within a spiritual community and begin to practice them, I find a new wisdom and power for reconciliation and restoration.

Will there be some relational problems that are never resolved? Yes—but only because God has given us the freedom to resist his Spirit and to reject his way of being. We have that choice—and we will live with the consequences of the choice we make, and sometimes, sadly, with the consequences of the choice someone else will make to refuse to live in loving relationship. And that is when we turn to Christ and to the spiritual community for the love, grace and support to heal and move on.

Father, how you must grieve when your children don’t play nice and don’t get along! Forgive us for all the ways we ruin our relationships and destroy the spiritual communion and love you call us to live in. Grant us the grace to do relationships your way and not our way. Give us the heart, mind and will to truly love and forgive one another in the way you love and forgive us. Through Jesus, our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, …” Mt 18:15-16a NASB