Letting the Failures Go
By Linda Rex
Good Friday | Preparation for Easter or Lent
I don’t know about you, but some days I wonder whether it was worth the effort to even get out of bed. It seems from the moment my feet hit the floor I am running backwards faster than I am moving forward. On days like this, hot tea or coffee doesn’t seem to help, and I’m hoping that the first person who comes in the door at work will pretend they don’t see me and will walk right on down the hall.
But the phone rings right then and I have to answer it. The cheerful tone in my voice is a little forced, but somehow in the middle of the conversation about who they need to talk to about what I find the capacity to genuinely serve and help someone. A silent prayer of gratitude forms in my heart—it seems there is hope for me after all, but only because of God’s grace and power.
And this is the thing about Good Friday. Here on this day we may ponder the suffering of Christ. We may read the story of him being taken into custody, having been betrayed by one of his very own followers. He did not get a good night’s rest, but spent the hours being grilled, beaten, and falsely accused of things which would never have even crossed his mind.
What really is amazing about this story is in his broken humanity, crushed by the anger and hate of fellow human beings, and weakened by the loss of blood and blows to his body, Jesus was at his strongest and most powerful. Why would I say that? Because he had access to legions of angels and to all the forces in the universe—and he did not call on them to help. What incredible strength of will and depth of humility!
In Hebrews, the writer says Jesus, “for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). He did not resist, nor did he regret, what he did in bearing up under the crucifixion. He had his heart and mind focused on the spiritual realities, securely rooted in his eternal relation with his Abba. He knew he was loved, held, and not forsaken, no matter how things appeared at the moment. And he had something he was trying to accomplish—something to complete—the destruction and removal of evil, sin, and death from our humanity and our cosmos.
What a task! To wrestle with the forces of evil requires incredible stamina of mind and will. To resist the temptation to quit or give in demands endurance and perseverance beyond our human capacity. To hang on when even the human body gives way means there was much more needed than just a human being dying on a cross when Jesus was crucified. The very presence of God himself on that cross was what was needed and what Abba gave us in sending us his Son Jesus to stand in our stead.
Because our Jesus was fully God and fully man, he conquered evil, sin, and death completely. There is nothing which was left undone in his gift of himself on the cross. He did it not because he had to, but because he chose to. He did it in love for you and for me.
So, if Jesus did such a good and complete job of conquering evil, sin, and death, why do I still struggle with my attitude and my behavior? Why do we still have people who go around shooting other people? What’s the point of what Jesus has done?
That is a really good question. I could say, Jesus set us an example of how we are to live our lives—as good people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. That’s a nice sentiment, but it lacks any substance. Just ask anyone who has for any length of time tried to really live the way Jesus lived—it’s really hard to do, actually next to impossible for us as humans to achieve in this life. No, there is something more going on than this.
I believe Jesus gave us as human beings the capacity to once again be truly human—to live the way we were created to live—loving God with all our being and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus enabled us to be genuine in our humanity by setting us free from evil, sin, and death, and enabling us to live in intimate relationship with his Abba by his Spirit.
And there it is. We have the capacity to be truly human because of Jesus. He has joined us forever with the Being of God in his Person so we can participate in the union and communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet, it took Jesus dying, rising, and sending the Spirit for this to be worked out in each of our lives individually. We each have been given the gift of God’s Spirit and Presence but are called upon to receive this gift and participate in the life we were created for.
The process of receiving this gift resembles remarkably the events of Good Friday. The Maundy Thursday meal where Jesus offered his body as the bread and his blood as the wine, was meant to help us identify the gift which was being given—Jesus Christ himself—his life for our life, his ways for our ways, his plans for our plans.
We join Jesus in his story on Good Friday as we own the truth of our failures, our missing the mark of who we were meant to be as God’s beloved children, and we lay down our broken humanity and receive his humanity in its place. We embrace the living Christ, who dwells within by his Spirit, surrendering to his Presence and Power.
This laying down that we might rise also means tossing away our feeble efforts at becoming godlike under our own power. Indeed, facing the reality of our failures as humans is healthy and essential to the process. We need to be willing to say, “I didn’t…”, “I can’t…”, and even, “I won’t…”—to admit the truth of our resistance against all which right, true, and holy. We can boldly come to our Abba and say, because of Jesus and our intimate connection with him, “I was wrong. I should not have done that, thought that, or said that.” And we can know in that moment, we are forgiven, embraced, and held. In spite of our failures, we are loved and included in Abba’s life.
As Jesus laid in the tomb on Holy Saturday, it seemed to all those he had grown close to that all hope was lost. In the same way, we can at times be so overwhelmed by the evil, sin, and death of this human existence, we begin to believe all hope is lost. We can live blinded to what is really going on: Jesus Christ is making all things new, and we are included in that great work he is doing right now in this world. All is forgiven and healed in him, but not everyone has embraced Abba’s solution to the problem.
Indeed, God calls on you and me, once in the sacrament of baptism, often as we eat the bread and wine in communion, and moment by moment as we live our lives, to die with Christ and rise with Christ. This is the truth of our existence, so we act like it. We live as though it were true.
In this moment in front of us, we may feel like we’re still rotting in the grave, but when we take a step in faith—trusting we are instead walking out of the tomb into the bright sunlight of God’s love and grace—we’ll find, that’s exactly the case. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are held. We are truly, essentially, and fully human, as God meant us to be.
Thank you, Abba, for including us in your life and love, through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to see how we individually and collectively participate in your story, Jesus, when you walked the road to and through death and resurrection, and to receive this gift of love and forgiveness with open hearts and hands. May we receive and live in the fullness of the gift of our true humanity in and through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Hebrews 10:18 NASB
Peace on Earth
by Linda Rex
Have you ever had one of those days when no matter where you turned, something horrible was happening or had happened, and someone’s life was shattered and broken? Do you ever have your heart so broken by what’s happening around you you think you will never be able to put it back together again?
There is so much awfulness going on around us today. It seems like there is no end to the horrendous things people do to one another. No matter how hard we try to make this a healthy and happy experience, we still lose dear ones and children. And it can seem like that’s all there is to this world. The possibility of hope in the midst of all this can seem very small.
This time of year during Advent we celebrate the coming into a dark and forbidding world of a ray of light, a beam of hope—the coming of God into our humanity to share our struggles and sufferings and to bring us new life. How fitting it is that our common desire for a messiah, a rescuer, was met with the gift of a little infant who bore the very Presence and Being of God himself.
The problem is we prefer God to rescue us on our own terms. During Jesus’ life here on earth, he was expected to be the Conquering King messiah, when he was really meant to be the lay-down-his-life Suffering Servant messiah. Our expectations of how God should rescue us often drive the way we see him and the way we experience our world, and they need readjusted.
Truth is, while this God/man Jesus Christ was on earth, he healed a lot of people, but he didn’t heal everyone who was sick. He may have thrown some vendors out of the temple, but he didn’t get rid of them over and over while he was here. He may have raised Lazarus and the young man in Nain from the dead, but he did not raise all the other people around him who died while he was here on earth.
It’s hard to picture this about our Savior, but he did not stop the slavery he saw about him. Nor did he intervene in every situation to stop the Romans from crucifying people. No doubt he saw and experienced much suffering and grief while he was here. But he didn’t stop it all and fix it all right there and then. His Father had something much different in mind.
Our way of dealing with things so often focuses on the right-here-and-now. It seems we need to be given an eternal perspective—one which focuses, not on morality or a pain-free life, but on relationship. Relationships can be difficult, messy and painful, and we so often prefer not to deal with the truth of the issues which are going on in our own hearts, much less those going on in the hearts of those around us.
The engagement of human hearts with the Divine Heart of love is something which takes us down paths we don’t want to go. We want peace, joy, love, happiness, hope. But we don’t want a relationship with the One who gives us those things, nor do we want to live in agreement with the truth of the reality for which we were created. I’m just being real here: We prefer to live in our own little bubble of reality, rather than in the truth of who we really are, the humans God created us to be—people who love God and love one another with outgoing, self-sacrificing love and humility.
God—Father, Son, and Spirit—has such a deep respect for our personhood, which reflects the divine Personhood, he does not impose his will on us, but rather invites us to participate in the true reality of life in the Trinity. There is a way of being we were created for which reflects the divine Way of Being, and we can live in this way, or in a way of our own devising.
We can decide for ourselves how we are going to use our bodies, our belongings, our world, or we can surrender to the reality we are not God and begin to use them all in the way God created them to be used in the first place. God has given us incredible freedom, and does not ever impose his will unless it is imperative to accomplishing his ultimate purposes in the world—to bring many children into glory.
So often we want God to straighten up things in the world, but the minute we begin to experience the possibility of him intervening, we get all upset, because he isn’t doing things the way we want him to do them. We struggle with the real dichotomy within our own human hearts—our desire to love and be loved, and our natural human rebellion against allowing God to be the supreme lover of our soul.
This puts us in a very difficult position. We are experiencing the consequences of our human rebellion against the Lord of the universe, but we are angry with God because we are experiencing these consequences. It is not our fault when we get mugged by someone or our loved one gets murdered—we did not do anything to deserve this suffering. It is not our fault someone dear to us developed cancer and died—they were a good person, so why did they have to die—we didn’t deserve this.
And this is all true. So many of us are experiencing the consequences of things others have done and which are not our fault. Others of us seem to get away with everything and never suffer any consequences. It all seems so unfair. And it really is, in one sense.
But from the viewpoint of the Divine grace of God, neither was the suffering and death of the little infant who lay in a manger that Bethlehem night. Here was God’s supreme gift to humanity—his very Person in human flesh. And we did to him what was in our hearts—we rejected him, abused him, and crucified him.
At no point did Jesus refuse to embrace the truth of the evil in our human hearts. Yes, he shed great tears and earnestly sought a different way, but in the end, he surrendered himself to the truth of the darkness in human hearts. And by doing so, he opened a way for Light to enter the world. In his life in this dark world, his suffering and crucifixion, he bore all that we go through, and then he died and rose again—to offer us hope in a new life, a new world to come where we could truly begin to experience life in the Trinity as God intended.
The Light of God entered the world, but then in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we find that the Light of God has entered human hearts. The Spirit has been sent of offer us our new existence in relationship with the Triune God of love. Our experience of the new life Christ has forged for us is found in the midst of this relationship of love—in true community with God and others.
If we were to look around us and even within our own hearts, we might find instead of darkness, the glimmer of the hope created for us in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Opening our hearts to the Light of God, we might find that this Light is shining all around us, in other human hearts, in difficult and painful situations, in the offering of joy and happy relationships in the midst of a dark world. The Light has come into the world—will we open our hearts and lives and embrace the wonder of this precious gift? Or will we continue down our own stubborn path of resistance to the truth of how things really are?
Either way, we have been given a hope, a joy, a peace we did not deserve. God has declared his heart toward us is love and grace. He has ordained peace on earth, in and through his Son Jesus Christ and by the gift of his Spirit. And one day, we will begin to experience the truth of this in a way we cannot even begin to imagine now.
Today and in this moment, we can participate in this gift by receiving it, opening it up, and enjoying the blessings of all God has given us in this gift of his Son. May you each have a very blessed Christmas, enjoying all the blessings of life in Jesus by the Spirit as Abba’s good and perfect gift. Merry Christmas!
Dear Abba, thanks for giving us the best of all gifts, your Son in the form of a baby in a manger. How can it be you love us so much you would give us your very heart?! Forgive us—so often we are unappreciative of your many gifts, especially this One Who was meant to bring us near to you in real, intimate relationship for all eternity. May we set aside all our expectations of you, and receive in true humility all we need for life and godliness—your most precious divine gifts—your Son and your Spirit. In your Name we pray, amen.
“The true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone, was coming into the world. He entered our world, a world He made; yet the world did not recognize Him. Even though He came to His own people, they refused to listen and receive Him. But for all who did receive and trust in Him, He gave them the right to be reborn as children of God; He bestowed this birthright not by human power or initiative, but by God’s will. The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us. We have seen Him, enveloped in undeniable splendor—the one true Son of the Father—evidenced in the perfect balance of grace and truth.” John 1:9-14 (The Voice Bible)
Reflections on a Blood Bath
by Linda Rex
It’s always distressing to me to hear about another massacre of innocent human beings, and this week’s event in Orlando was no different. How can we, after all we have received of the grace of God, still turn on one another and steal the life God has given and redeemed? The inhumanity, or shall I say insanity, of such an act is beyond comprehension. I hope and pray this event will not end up trivialized like all the others, and just boiled down into a political or religious statement about gun control, human rights or the moral depravity of humanity.
For all the people who had to arrange and attend a funeral for someone dear to them, this is so much more than that. Such unnecessary and horrific loss! To have one’s world so violently rearranged by someone else creates such unimaginable pain and anger.
Unfortunately, this is not an unusual happening nowadays. It is still somehow so deeply engrained in our humanity to participate in the evil one’s kingdom in which he comes to kill, steal and destroy. Even our ideologies can be at fault when it comes to the taking of other human lives. But we must go deeper even than that.
We can blame radical Islam for this event, but if we were truly honest with ourselves, we would have to admit, that were the situation right, we could do exactly what this man did. Each of us has the capacity to commit horrific acts of evil, because each of us, at our core, is broken. Each of us has our own demons which we fight. None of us is truly innocent.
As Christians, or even as humans of any creed or belief, we need to be really careful not to assume we do not possess the capacity for evil. Too many people have been hurt and crushed by the infidelity or abuse of someone who claimed to be a Christian. History is full of stories of people who said they were godly men or women, but who turned out to be truly evil at their core.
This morning I looked to see how often the word kill was used in the Bible. The Old Testament is full of stories where people killed one another. Yes, sometimes even God allowed or encouraged it, due to the circumstances involved. But this capacity to turn as one human against another began with Cain and has not ceased since.
As I continued to look at the use of the word kill, I noticed there was a change when it came to the gospels. In the gospels, we see Jesus talking about how the Jewish people killed their prophets and telling his disciples the Jewish authorities would kill him too. We see Jesus telling his followers not to fear people who can and will take their life, but to fear, or respect, the God who gives and takes away life. Jesus stressed giving one’s life, not taking one’s life away. He laid down his life for each of us, and calls for us to do the same.
It is instructive that the Jewish leaders of the day worked very hard to be pious, good people, well-respected by others. But their piety was demonstrated by their determined effort to put Jesus to death. The man Saul, who we know as the apostle Paul in his later years and who held the clothes of Stephen as he was martyred, was a clear illustration of this reality. His effort to be God-fearing resulted in his participating in the death of an innocent man, and the killing and imprisoning of many other people in the early church.
The expansion of the early church into the Roman culture came about not because the believers threatened to kill people who weren’t followers of the Way, but because they willingly laid down their lives for the sake of Jesus. It was through their suffering, loss and death that the early Christians impacted the culture around them. Great change came about because of their willingness to suffer and die rather than give up their relationship with Jesus Christ and the blessing of life in the Spirit.
We need to understand the difference between living by a law or moral code, and living and walking in the Spirit while following Jesus. Paul said when talking about the new covenant in Jesus Christ that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor 3:6) When we are living and walking in our flesh according to some form of ideology, or some moral code, it is easy to justify killing and destroying another human being. But when we are living and walking in the Spirit, participating in the life of Jesus, we have the desire and capacity to give life rather than take it, and may find within ourselves the capacity to lay down our life for another human being who could even be our enemy.
We see the life-giving Spirit of Christ at work in many places and ways in the world. I see the Spirit at work in the hearts and lives of the parents who so faithfully and diligently minister daily to an autistic or disabled child. I see the Spirit of Christ at work in our community as people work to bring about peaceful resolutions to difficult problems. I see the Spirit of Christ at work in the life of the person who works to care for and studies the environment and the wildlife in exotic locations in the world, and in the life of the one who cares enough about the animals in their neighborhood that they make sure they each have safe homes and good health care.
This is the new covenant life Jesus bought for us with his blood shed on the cross and which he made available to us in the gift of his Spirit. We are bathed in his crimson flood so that we can have real life instead of our natural manner of life which so often leads to death. Why should we continue to live life on our own terms when we have been offered something so much better?
In the taking of the Eucharist, in our sharing through the wine and bread of the body and blood of Jesus, we are reminded as Christ wished us to be, that he stands in our place. It is his life, his death, his resurrection, and his life eternal in his glorified humanity which is ours. We are awakened again to the Spirit poured out on us, alive within us, and are renewed in our capacity to share in the divine life and love, even now in the daily ins and outs of life. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who enables us to love the unlovely, forgive the unforgiveable, and to lay down our lives for those who do not deserve it.
Such suffering as is incurred in the terrorist attacks we are witnessing is not going unnoticed. Such destruction and death will not be ignored. It is a violation of the Spirit of life in Christ which we have been given. And Christ promised never to leave or forsake his children—he is here with us in the midst of our pain and suffering and death, and inhumanity of human to human. He grieves and weeps with us, he endures suffering with us, and is hurt and angered by what we do to one another.
But this is also why he came and took upon himself the whole injustice and evil of humanity. This is why he allowed the pious Jews of his day to torture him and crucify him. So every time something like these horrific events happens, we are not alone. He has joined himself to us in our sin and suffering, and has made us one with himself, so we are and can become something we would not otherwise be.
In Jesus we have the hope that evil does not have the last word, and one day will be fully eradicated from our humanity. In the gift of the Spirit, we see Jesus beginning to work his kingdom life out in our world today in the midst of its brokenness. May God grant us the grace to walk by faith, not by sight, looking beyond this broken world and our broken humanity into the true reality purchased for us by the Son of God and made possible for us in the gift of his Holy Spirit.
Dear God, forgive us for all the horrible things we do to ourselves and to one another. Thank you for joining with us in the midst of our brokenness and evil, and raising us up to life with you in Christ and by your Spirit. Please finish what you have begun—do not give up on us. You know how desperately we need you to transform and heal us and our world. May your kingdom come and your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.” John 8:37–40 NASB
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 NASB
Growing in Neighborliness
by Linda Rex
I grew up in the suburbs of metropolitan Los Angeles and know what it’s like to live in a big city. Today I live and work in and near metropolitan Nashville.
I find living in a large city such as Nashville or L.A. has its strong points, and I can see why people would want to live and work in these hubs of humanity. There are many opportunities to be found in close proximity, especially with regards to cultural and recreational attractions, employment opportunities, and educational institutions.
Living in a big city is not what I would prefer, but I can appreciate the benefits of this lifestyle. I personally prefer small town living, but have learned to adapt to the higher stress, less privacy and less relaxed environment of this area. This is because I have learned over the years that whether urban or rural, the people who live in this world are at their heart, the same as you and me—we all are made in God’s image to live together in loving community.
Between these two adventures in big city living, I also lived in rural southeast Iowa, where the closest city of any real size was at least forty-five minutes from home. In that part of the United States of America, it was not uncommon for people to leave their homes and cars unlocked, and for neighbors to enter by the back door.
When I was eight months pregnant and going to town on a hot summer day, my car ran out of gas two miles from the closest town. I was a lot less nervous then about having someone help me than I am today because that’s what people did there when someone was in trouble. Neighbors were neighbors and looked out for one another.
As I’ve gotten to know more of the people who live next door to Good News Fellowship in Nashville, I’ve come to see that same heart of true neighborliness also exists here and there in the community around our church. Many of our neighbors are kind, helpful people who want their neighborhood to be a safe, upbeat, and warm community where old and young people alike can live free from abuse or neglect.
Our neighbors want to be able to walk or run down their streets during the day and the night, and not fear they will get mugged, or simply shot because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They would like to be able to trust that someone will not steal their belongings, or damage their cars, or invade their homes. They would like to live without fear, and to be able to trust others with their lives, their homes and their belongings.
Our neighbors simply want to be good neighbors who live in loving community. They want to help people who need to be watched out for, such as elderly or sick neighbors who can’t get out or who are easily taken advantage of. They want to get together to share a meal or to clean the trash off the streets. Whether or not they realize it, in doing these things in community, they are sharing in the unmistakeable heart of love and compassion which exists within the inner relationship of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
In our common humanity, whether urban or rural dwellers, we were created to live with one another in this kind of loving community. We were not created to prey on one another or to take advantage of one another. We were created to love one another and to look out for one another. When we don’t live together with love and respect and understanding, all kinds of misery is the result. This is because we are not being who we really are—who we were created by God to be.
True neighborliness which is loving and respectful cannot be legislated. It is not really possible to tell people to be good to one another and expect them to do it just because there are laws which say they should and penalties for when they don’t. External efforts to create loving community are no guarantee such community will come into existence and then stay.
The heart of love and compassion which is at the root of true neighborliness has its source in our God of love—the One who pours his love into us by his Holy Spirit. We find God at work in many places and in many people who we, because of our prejudices and presuppositions, believe are not good people. We need to open our hearts and minds to the reality God is at work in each person’s life and heart—we are all made in God’s image and redeemed by his Son and given the gift of the Spirit who is at work in this world.
Our participation in the work the Spirit is doing in this world to bring the love of the Father and the Son to full fruition is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to pray for, love and respect each person God places in front of us. Those who are so broken as to prey upon us, violate us and steal from us need this love just as much as we need it. So we follow Jesus’ instruction to pray for them, to love and bless them, while guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Sometimes in order to do God’s work of loving others, we need to have and use healthy boundaries.
As members of the body of Christ, we as members of Christian churches have a responsibility to lead others in loving the unlovely, and caring for the broken and downtrodden. We are called to demonstrate through loving actions the real caring and compassion which exists within the Trinity and should exist within the body of Christ. We should all work together, no matter our creed, in the unity of the Spirit and the oneness of Christ, to show the neighborly love of God to others in our church neighborhood.
When we do this, we are entering into a battle for our community. The kingdom of darkness does not appreciate any light we may bring into our neighborhood, and so there is a struggle. But we walk in the assurance that Christ has done what was needed to defeat the darkness. We walk by faith, not by sight. In other words, we keep loving, praying for and showing compassion to those Christ places in front of us, and bear up, by God’s grace, under whatever opposition may come our way. We walk the difficult road of building up community when efforts are being made to tear it down.
Holy Father, by your Son and in the Spirit, empower us to love one another as you created us to. Give us hearts of compassion and respect. Make us “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” as we interact with our neighbors, whoever they may be. God, by your great love, create loving community within our neighborhood so we can experience the same love which exists in your very Being as Father, Son and Spirit. In your Name, we pray. Amen.
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB
Leaving it All for Love
by Linda Rex
Many years ago I packed everything I owned in a U-Haul truck and left my southern California bungalow for the hills of rural southeast Iowa. It was quite a cultural shock for someone who had grown up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Over the years people have often asked me what in the world made me do this.
At the time, it just seemed the logical and right thing to do. I was in love and had married an Iowa farmer. To leave my home, my family, my friends, my job, and all that was familiar to me seemed to be only a little thing in the face of building a new life based on love.
One of the stories many of us had to read in high school was Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. In this classic story of love and tragedy, we find the age-old question asked, “What would I do for love?” It is a question many of us face in our day-to-day lives as we interact with family, friends and our community. What exactly are we willing to do in the name of love?
Throughout his ministry, Jesus engaged his disciples in conversations that challenged them with this very same question. He walked up to Matthew as he collected the taxes and said to him, “Follow me.” And he dropped everything and followed him. He went to John and James and said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And they left it all and followed him.
Throughout this ministry, the disciples kept being faced with the question: Am I really ready and willing to leave all behind and follow Jesus? At one point they reminded Jesus of all they had given up to follow him, and asked what they were going to get out of the deal. Jesus said they would receive abundantly in the world to come as well as receive some rewards now. But the greatest gift they would receive through it all would be eternal life, in relationship with the God who loved and cared for them.
In his book “The Call to Discipleship”, Karl Barth writes about our tendency to adopt Christianity like we join a fraternal organization—it’s a nice thing to do and it fits in beautifully with our life plans. Sadly, we can tend to treat our call to faith with an indifference borne out of our jaded human experience where we’ve seen it all, done it all and this is just one more thing to do to guarantee a healthy, happy life.
But the call to discipleship is a call to leave all behind and follow Christ. It means letting go of all that has gone before in such a way that we hold loosely to the things of this world and we hold tightly to Jesus Christ, our new humanity. God calls us to let go of all of the things in our life that we identify ourselves by, for our new identity is in Jesus Christ alone.
This can be very difficult, especially when what we need to leave behind is something we have built our whole life around, thinking that it defines us and our humanity. Just what exactly are we willing to do for love? Just what are we willing to leave behind to follow Christ?
Perhaps if we were willing to look at this question from the other way around we might find some compelling reason to leave everything behind.
We need to look intently at Jesus Christ—who is he? Here is One who lived eternally in a relationship of love and companionship in which he was content, fulfilled and complete. He had no need of anyone or anything else. He did not need us, nor did God have any reason to create us other than as an expression of his overflowing, abundant love.
Yet this God, who was rich in every way, set all the privileges and dignity of his divinity aside, and joined us in our humanity. He left everything that was familiar and comfortable, and took up residence in a human body. He allowed himself to be carried about and mothered by Mary, and to be instructed in the temple by the rabbis. He walked about on earth, getting his feet dusty and dirty like every other human being. And he did it all for love.
And that wasn’t enough for him. He even allowed himself to be insulted, abused, shamed and crucified by us. He died an ignoble death with a word of forgiveness and compassion on his lips. Isn’t that the truest expression of love?
Taking all this into account then, how can there be anything we are not willing to give up for him? Love and gratitude for this amazing act of love compels us to drop everything and to do whatever it takes to follow him, even if it means leaving everything we value behind.
It will not always be easy to follow Christ. We will be faced with the decision at some point in our lives—do I cling to what is comfortable and convenient, or do I hold fast to Christ? Is this relationship I’m in more important to me than living in agreement with the One who gave it all up for me? Do I hold fast to my integrity or to the job I desperately need so I can keep my house? Will I hold on to my pride or be willing to eat humble pie and admit to my spouse that I am wrong?
What are we willing to give up for love? Jesus gave it all up for you and for me—perhaps what we need to give up really isn’t that significant after all.
Lord, thank you for leaving everything behind and joining us in our humanity. Thank you for loving us so much that you were willing to give it all up for love. Grant us the grace to give ourselves fully to you and to others in the same way you have given yourself to us. In your name, Jesus, amen.
“Peter said, ‘Behold, we have left our own homes and followed You.’ And He said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.’” Luke 18:28–30 NASB
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.” John 15:12–14 NASB
God In the Midst of the Dying
by Linda Rex
I’m seeing more and more that what we unconsciously say and do often reflects a belief about who God is and who we are in relation to him that is unhealthy and even wrong. Even our language as followers of Christ is often filled with a deep anxiety that God’s not going to come through for us. Deep down we believe that if we don’t get things exactly right, the outcome is not going to be good.
I hear this a lot of times when people are talking about the growth and development of things they believe God wants them to be doing, such as ministries or churches, or even families. There is an underlying belief that if they just get all their ducks in a row, so to speak, then everything will turn out wonderful. If they follow this particular plan or complete these specific tasks in the correct order, then something awesome is going to happen. And if they don’t, all hell will break loose.
This God-concept also shows up when I talk with people about the darkness or chaos in their lives. And truly, how can I blame someone for seeing God in this way, when everything they are experiencing or have experienced in their life tells them it is true? What could I say that would convince them otherwise?
I know what it feels like to have everything you believe in fall into pieces at your feet. I know the pain of deep betrayal by those you trusted and counted on, including God. I know how it feels to be surrounded with mountains of problems that can’t be climbed. The despair that goes with such hopelessness can be overwhelming.
Whether we like it or not, we are faced with these ultimate questions over and over in life: Is God trustworthy and good? Does he really love me? Will God come through for me when I need him? Can I count on him? Does he really forgive sinners?
For whatever reason, we are never fully satisfied with the truth about who God is and who we are in relation to him, no matter how many times we are told it. It seems as though we have to experience the truth before we allow it to shape us and transform us. God spends our lifetimes bringing us through one circumstance after another, showing us the truth of his goodness, mercy and love.
It is refreshing to come to the realization that the whole issue about the success or failure of anything isn’t whether I’m doing it right, or someone else is doing it correctly, or whether we’re just letting God do it all himself. The real foundational paradigm is participation—sharing in relationship—doing it together. It’s not really about what you’re doing, but about doing it together, in relationship with God.
We get worried about the goodness and badness of things, and are agitated about having everything fulfill the perfect plan (whoever the architect may be). But God is interested in the process and in sharing life with us. It’s the conversations we have with him as we are doing this, the building of intimacy with him, that he cares about. It’s the knowing and being known that matters.
I read somewhere that what children remember most about their childhoods is not necessarily the gifts they were given, but the special times they spent with certain people doing things that were meaningful. It was the relational sharing, the sacrifices made, the unconditional love and grace in the midst of brokenness that was most significant.
Likewise, it is the abusive and harmful significant relationships that are so devastating to children. When authority figures or trusted people do not image God’s love and grace, but the brokenness of our humanity to children, it causes them to question these very core beliefs about God and who they are in the midst of such a dangerous, chaotic world.
We find ourselves then, as grownups, faced with all the same stuff, and our response hinges upon these fundamental beliefs about God, ourselves, and each other. William Paul Young said recently at Grace Communion International’s Converge 2015 conference that it took him 55 years to get the face of his father off the face of God. Personally, it has taken me much of my own life to see God in some way other than how I believed a father was, since my only experience with a father was with my own dad.
Thankfully, as we grow in our relationship with God, he works to change how we think and feel about him as Father, Son and Spirit. That’s what’s involved in repentance—changing our minds and hearts about God, who he is and who we are in relationship with him. We begin to see how we were totally wrong and we turn around and go the other way.
It takes great faith to be caught in the midst of devastating circumstances and still be able to say to God, “I trust you.” It takes a deep assurance of God’s love to stand strong in our relationship with God when it looks by all appearances as though he has turned and walked away. It takes great humility to allow God to work out circumstances in whatever way he thinks is best, when we would rather take the easy road, or go our own way.
This Holy Week teaches us that Jesus paved the way in all these areas. Even though he asked his Father to find a way different than the cross, Jesus yielded to his Father’s will and wisdom and took the high road to the cross. His final words to God, even when he was experiencing the silence of our humanity, was that he entrusted his Spirit to the Father. He knew his Father well enough to know that he was not leaving him or going away. Nothing can or will divide the Trinity.
There is a deep rest that Jesus created for us in his relationship with the Father by the Spirit. He proved that even in the midst of dying and death, there is resurrection. Our God can be completely and totally trusted. His love never fails. However bleak things may look or feel, the truth is that God’s got it. He’s going all the way with us, to and through the cross and tomb, to the glory of the resurrection. In the end, all that matters is that he was with us through it all and will be with us forever.
Thank you, Father, that you are indeed who Jesus showed us you are, and that your Spirit never stops working to show us the truth about who you are. Thank you that we are held each moment in life and in death in your loving embrace, and that you have given us the hope of the resurrection. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us, just as you finished what you planned before time began through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.” Ps 22:24 NASB
Seed of Glory
By Linda Rex
The other day I was listening to a presentation in which William Paul Young spoke about the story of his life and the events which led to his writing the best-selling book “The Shack”. This book has been quite controversial, especially since his approach to the presentation of the nature of the Trinity in the book is quite out of the box. Some Christian believers have been and are quite critical of the book and the author, while many millions of people of all walks of life and belief systems have found healing in their souls and in their relationship with God through Young’s writing.
In his presentation, William Paul Young talks about the horrors he experienced as a missionary child and how they created an inner world of shame that nearly destroyed him. In fact, at a critical moment in his life when he could no longer bear the truth of who he believed he was, a friend spoke into his shattered, broken being some simple words which gave him a reason to live. When all he could see was the abyss of his black, dark soul, she pointed him to the divine reality that in the midst of this darkness and death, was a tiny seed. A tiny seed—that was enough to give him hope.
I believe this was what Jesus was talking about when he told his disciples that he would soon be glorified. But his disciples could not grasp the truth that the path to glory was through death and resurrection. Over and over Jesus sought to explain how the kingdom of God would be inaugurated in this new way. At one point Jesus used the example of a grain of wheat which falls into the ground and dies, and through its dying ends up bearing a large amount of fruit.
When a person is sitting in the midst of a soul full of shame and guilt, and no matter where they turn they can see no hope, it is essential that they see the truth about who God is and who they are in him.
Unfortunately, the God many Christians believe in is a God of wrath, who is so holy that he cannot look upon evil, much less be touched by it. This leaves broken people in a very dark place. If God is the only One who can rescue broken people out of their darkness, shame and guilt, and yet he will not sully himself with sin, death or evil, then broken people have no hope.
This view of legal holiness is choking the life out of the Christian church today. And, sadly, it ignores the truth the early believers came to see and hammered out about the God who is Father, Son and Spirit and who is love.
The hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” talks about the broken and sinful nation of Israel pining away in the darkness, waiting for the light of the Messiah to dawn upon them. It is the cry of the ages—we are caught within a web of death created by our sinfulness and brokenness, and the evil one who seeks our demise. Where can we turn, if there is no God who will love us and rescue us?
But God, the God of the Bible, is concerned about a whole lot more than our holiness. He does not stand aloof from our brokenness and darkness. The Scripture says that even before the foundations of the world were set into place, this God who is love, knew and prepared for each one of us. He intended all along that you and I, every one of us, were to share eternity with him. He intended, even before any of us were created, to bind each one of us to himself in the incarnation.
The entrance of the God of the cosmos into our humanity changed the whole sweep of human existence. God in human flesh. This means that forever our humanity is joined with his divinity. There is life in the midst of death. There is healing in the midst of brokenness and darkness.
The simple statement of truth in scripture—Jesus became sin for us—is transformational. God is not too holy to be sullied by sin, death or evil! He took it on, and overcame it, transformed and healed it. He cleansed us and made us new—through Jesus Christ, through pouring into our humanity his glorious divine life.
Yes, of course! If anyone wants to participate in the kingdom of God, he or she must be born again—have new life (John 3). This is what Jesus did for all of humanity through his life, death and resurrection. We share in his life, death and resurrection and are made new. We are transformed because we receive God’s very life in our human flesh. Participating in the eucharist, in eating the bread and drinking the wine, reminds us of the beauty of this gift of God’s of life in Christ poured out into our human flesh.
Jesus’ death and resurrection are not the end of the gospel. There is so much more to the story! Because with Jesus, each of us died and rose again and were carried with Christ into the presence of the Father. Jesus bears our humanity even now in the presence of the Father. (Eph. 1)
This means that when we are sitting in the midst of our shame and guilt, in the darkness and brokenness of our human existence—no matter how dark or lost we may feel and be—we are not left hopeless. There is hope for you and for me! In the midst of all that death we experience and feel, there is a seed. There is life.
Death and resurrection—that is the path to glory. Jesus took it and invites each of us to travel it with him. He will not leave us in our darkness, but holds us by the hand and leads us to the Father. When he is done with us, we will see that in the midst of our darkness, the Father was with us the whole time, holding us and helping us, carrying us through.
Jesus’ words of loss on the cross, where he cried out for his Father and expressed his grief at not sensing his Father’s presence were taken from Psalm 22. In that psalm we see that our human experience of separation from God because of our brokenness is a lie—that no matter how bad things get—God never leaves us.
Jesus, as the incarnate Word, had through all eternity, never been separated from his Father or the Spirit. God, who is a Oneness of unity, equality and diversity was threatened with separation, but nothing could ever separate the triune Oneness—not even death on a cross. Jesus, as a human being may have experienced this silence, but it was a lie—God cannot be separated from himself—he is not a schizophrenic God.
The evil one struck at the very heart of the triune Oneness when he inspired the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But he could not separate God from himself. Jesus may have died in his humanity, but he entrusted his Spirit to the Father. He trusted God would raise him from the dead. He knew and trusted the Father’s heart, and so he rested in that deep knowing when he died.
In the midst of our darkness, however black it may be, there is always a glimmer of light. In our human death—whatever form it may take—there is a seed, a seed that will bear much fruit. Trust the Father’s heart, that it is good and it is love. God so loved—you and me, in the midst of our darkness, shame, guilt and sin—that he gave us himself. He planted a seed of glory in you and in me. He holds this pulsing, glowing promise of life in his hands, tenderly working until we all shine in glorious splendor like his Son. Trust him to finish what he has begun. Because he will.
Father, thank you for giving us the gift of yourself, in your Son and in your Spirit. Thank you that in the midst of our brokenness, darkness, and death we have the promise of life in Christ. Thank you for giving us hope. We trust you to finish your perfect work in us as you transform us into masterpieces of glory through Jesus Christ and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“And Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:23–24 NASB
By Linda Rex
It’s been interesting to watch companies alter their advertising strategies to accommodate public concerns about body image and eating disorders. It’s good to see positive changes about these things. Helping young people have a healthy view of themselves as they grow up, and treating everyone, no matter their appearance, with respect and dignity is a worthy cause.
But there is another change I’d like to see in our media and advertising strategies. Unfortunately, sex sells, and so often it is used to sell even the most mundane products. Sometimes I’m appalled at how often the word “love” is used to refer to having sex with someone. Selling sex and calling it love seems to be the media strategy of the day.
As I sit impatiently through another lengthy ad about some pharmaceutical product, I am appalled by our addiction to pleasure filled, pain-free, hedonistic living. It seems like we are in general as a culture addicted to sex for its own sake. Sex is no longer experienced as a sacred event in which two people in the real presence of God share a deep intimacy unique to themselves alone within a covenanted relationship.
This isn’t a condemnation of sex outside of marriage. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of a lack of knowledge and discernment about love, what it is and what it is not. It is an expression of my grief that we are missing out on something beautiful, precious and divine. It is a realization that we are not living in the truth of who we are and who we were meant to reflect in our love and sexual relationships.
How we treat sex and sexual relationships says a lot about us as human beings. So does how we view love and love relationships.
There is a substantial brokenness at the heart of each one of us that causes us to run from a deep, committed relationship with God. And in running from intimacy with God, we also run from intimacy with one another.
We are happy to experience physical intimacy, because for a while it feels a lot like real intimacy. But real intimacy demands so much more from us—vulnerability, commitment, sacrifice, humility, submission, surrender—all the things we’d prefer to have to live without. We are happy to live with the counterfeit because the real is so demanding. And when a real relationship fractures or ends in death, the pain is excruciating. And we don’t want to deal with the pain.
Living in intimacy with God goes right along with this. We can be content with a superficial relationship with God—he makes no demands, we’re free to set our own limits. Or we can go deeper—surrendering all of ourselves, making ourselves fully vulnerable to God and others, sacrificing for his sake, living in commitment to him and his will in full submission to him—this is a real and deep relationship of love. But that means that God calls the shots in everything, including our sex and love life.
We can compartmentalize our relationship with God. We’ll be at church on Sunday or watch the evangelist on TV, send in a few bucks here and there for a worthy cause—and we’ve done what God expects, we think. Then we can go on about the rest of our life anyway we want. And God allows us to do that.
But this is so much like having a casual, physical relationship with someone and then walking away whenever we decide we’re done. We can have an occasional feel-good relationship with God, say that we love him, and then go on with our lives. We can dismiss him as someone we use and discard as the situation requires.
God meant for all of life, all that we are, to be a part of our relationship with him. That includes love and sex. As King David wrote in Psalm 139, God is present at all times in the Spirit. There is no part of our lives that is lived outside of God’s presence and power. And as Jesus bears our human flesh in the presence of the Father, all of our humanity is deeply and completely open to and known by God.
Love and sex are meant to be outward- and upward-focused rather than inward-focused. There is a sacredness to our relationships and our sexuality that precludes casual expression. Our bodies, souls and spirits, as well as those of others around us, are held as precious, to be respected, cherished and honored, not just used for self-fulfillment or self-indulgence. Love is something so much deeper than a casual sexual encounter—it is an expression of the divine.
In giving us his Son Jesus, God calls each of us to go deeper with him in a relationship of love—to love him with all that we are. And he calls each of us to love one another in the same self-sacrificing way Jesus demonstrated for us as he lived, died and rose again as a human being. We called out of darkness into God’s light, to take the path of transparency, integrity, sincerity and purity.
Taking this path in no way diminishes the pleasure and beauty of sex or love, but rather it concentrates it, giving it an intensity, freedom and power it would not otherwise have. And because sex and love are expressed by human beings in broken ways, we should accept that they are only glimpses of the divine. They were never meant to be the ultimate experience in themselves, but to create in us a thirst for something beyond this life that only God can satisfy.
I hope and pray that at some point, we as human beings, made in God’s image, born to be in relationship with God and one another, will draw the line and stop allowing ourselves to be manipulated, used and controlled via our sexuality. And when someone talks about love, it will not just be about sex, but will also be about commitment, compassion, service, giving, sharing, understanding and sacrifice. May God hasten that day!
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Holy Father, forgive us for not understanding or appreciating the precious gifts of love and sex you have given us as human beings. Open our eyes to see that in Jesus and through your Spirit we live moment by moment in your presence, that all of our life is taken up in you, including our sexuality. Grant us the grace to live in true intimacy with you and one another as you intended from the beginning. Through Jesus our Lord, and in your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:9–11 NASB
The Fragrance of Grace
This morning I had a quiet chat with my daughter as I was preparing to write this blog. When she began to leave the room, she asked why my room smelled like perfume. We had lit a couple of candles while we were talking, but what she didn’t know was that I had lit both candles earlier, long before she came in, and had just blown them out before she arrived. They had filled the room with a combination of the scents “Midnight Oasis” and “Sweet Lavender”, both of which were pretty strong scents.
I like the way some scents hang in the air and give a room a pleasant feel when you enter it. Sometimes a soft, spicy scent can make a room feel pleasant and homey—like the scent of cinnamon that lingers in the air of the kitchen after I’ve finished baking snickerdoodles or apple pie.
I’m not real fond of the heavy scent that I often smell at a flower or candle shop. Usually it is much too overpowering for me to really enjoy. For the most part, a barely discernible scent is more my style.
Speaking of scents, I wonder if we realize that sometimes we leave behind a strong scent—and I don’t mean a physical scent, but the kind that is a feeling or impression. We leave behind something that sticks in people’s minds about us after we’re gone. And I wonder whether or not it is what the apostle Paul describes as “a fragrance of Christ to God” or “a sweet aroma of the knowledge of him.”
Jesus offered himself in our place as a sacrifice, the aroma of which was and is pleasing to God. He calls us to be living sacrifices as well, ones who leave behind the sweet aroma that is our participation in Christ’s fragrance as we share with others the knowledge of Christ. When we walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, we are a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God just as he was.
Have you ever met someone and immediately known that you’d better watch yourself or you would be the brunt of criticism and/or ridicule? Some people just have this air of condemnation about them. They give off an odor of a critical spirit, of impatience and sometimes even cruelty. The air fairly sizzles with negative energy when you get close.
Personally, I know that there are days when I am guilty of walking about with a cloud over my head, dripping raindrops all over everybody I come near. When I have an “Eeyore” day, I’m not much fun to be around. In fact, I can be downright stinky on days like that.
Whether we like it or not, we’re always giving off some sort of aroma, bad or good. Paul counsels us to make it an aroma of love—the fragrance of grace that is shared with us in Jesus. When others are around us, they should catch the scent of God’s mercy and compassion, and be influenced by it. They should experience God’s grace in a real way as they interact with us. And it should linger in their hearts and minds when we leave.
It’s a good thing that it’s Christ in us who is the true fragrance we are to manifest. We share in his perfect life and perfect love. It is his grace that we live and walk in and share with others. He is our life, and we share that life with others. What a blessing that it is all of grace!
How often I have been struggling to keep a good attitude and have found myself in conversation with someone who doesn’t need my junk—they just need a good dose of Christ! Thankfully God hears the quiet prayers of our hearts, for it seems that he gives me just the right thing to say or do in that moment. So in spite of me, there is left behind a gift of his grace and love to minister to the one who is hurting. I am so grateful that he is the true minister, not me in those moments. The fragrance of grace is Christ in me.
No matter what God has called you or me to do in our lives, no matter where we may find ourselves, or what we may be asked to do at any moment, God is present and powerful in us, with us, and for us. His grace makes it possible for us to exhude the very life and love of God himself. We place our trust in him and he goes to work. And then in the end—he gets all the praise and glory, not us. God “manifests through us the sweet aroma” and we are all blessed in the process. Praise God!
Thank you, Lord, that you take our stinky selves and transform us by your grace into sweet smelling sacrifices that are a reflection of your love and mercy. Grant us the grace to let you transform us and make us into people who are a joy to be around and a blessing to others. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us, through Jesus Christ and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.” 2 Cor. 2:14–17
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Eph. 5:1–2
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