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Entrusted with What’s His

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By Linda Rex

November 15, 2020, Proper 28—It can be easy to believe that God has a funny way of running the universe. He makes these creatures who have intelligent minds, the ability to make decisions and to create things. He gives them the ability to reproduce themselves. And then he gives them the capacity to ignore him, reject him, and even turn against him. And to top it all off, he gives them the responsibility to care for all he has made!

What was God thinking? Perhaps I’m being a little too humorous about this, but I believe we can take this in two ways—1) we can believe that God is loving and good and believes in the creatures he has made and is working for their good, or 2) we can believe that he is a hard, cruel God who is setting up humanity from the beginning for failure. How we respond as human beings to our call to care for and steward all God made and to love one another is essentially grounded in what kind of God we believe in, if any.

Moving forward, then. What kind of God would take on a human body and live in it, allowing himself to be ridiculed, rejected, and even crucified? And even after all that, entrust to his followers the Holy Spirit, sharing the good news of God’s love, and the responsibility of building the church and equipping the saints? The track record of the believers and the church over the millennia hasn’t always been the best, but knowing this would happen didn’t keep Christ from charging his followers with this responsibility.

It seems that too often, we as human beings have spent our time playing video games when we could have been washing the dog, cleaning our rooms or having friends over for a play date. Rather than creating a Play-Doh masterpiece for mom, we’ve been battling virtual ninjas, ending up with nothing to show for it but a great score on the leaderboard. Believe me, I love a great video game, but my point is that too often we as human beings have missed the boat when it comes to understanding who we are and what we are meant to do with our time here on earth. Too often we have taken the overflowing sack of God’s love and grace and buried it in the ground.

When we look at Jesus’ parable about the talents, we tend to narrow it down to believers needing to use their spiritual gifts in his service. I think there is a whole lot more at stake than simply that. The context is the kingdom of heaven—Jesus is describing the kingdom he was inaugurating in himself, in his presence as the Creator within his creation. As God in human flesh, he was seizing back what humanity had lost by turning away from God to the things of this world and Satan.

What every human being needs to come to terms with is that God loved him or her enough to set aside temporarily the benefits of his divinity, to come and live in our humanity, for each person’s sake. He sought to raise humanity up out of the spiritual poverty and death we had fallen into so that we could live now and forever in right relationship with him and one another. He freed us from evil, sin, and death, not so we could party however we wanted, but so that we could be a part of his heavenly celebration now and for all eternity. He sent his Spirit so we would be empowered with his very presence and person to enable us to live as we were meant to live—in other-centered love with God and each other.

What would happen if we came to terms with the reality that God loves each of us, immensely, completely, and forever? What if we understood that God has entrusted us with his Son, his Spirit, and all he has made—offering life in union and communion with him now and forever? What are we doing with this grace God has given us?

God gives us his creation to steward. God gives us himself in his Son and in his Spirit. Repentance and faith, with baptism into the body of Christ, are the immediate response he seeks. We’ve been given a huge bonus check of grace—do we go to the bank and open up an account so we can put the grace to work? Or do we cash the check and then hide the bills in the wall of our house? What do we do with the grace and love God lavishes on us?

Grace put to work opens the door for others to experience and share in God’s grace. This is our participation in the life of Christ. He is at work in this world, bringing others to the knowledge of himself and enabling them to participate as well in what he is doing in the world. By faith and through baptism, new believers are welcomed into the body of Christ, and included in our participation in the mission of Jesus to spread the gospel (the good news of God’s love expressed to us in Christ) throughout the world.

And yes, the Spirit showers spiritual gifts on believers, enabling them to play particular roles within the body of Christ—teaching, preaching, administrating, sharing, helping, and serving for example. These gifts are meant to enable believers to participate more fully in stewarding all God has given. Some are meant to equip others to do ministry and to build up the body of Christ. Some are meant to demonstrate God’s love in tangible ways in this world so that others can experience God’s love and grace in their lives.

The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just a story we tell. It is a life which we live. It is a person we reflect. As image-bearers of Christ, we bear his name, his Suffering Servant nature, by his Spirit in our person. As we respond to God’s love and grace expressed to us in his Son Jesus, we recognize that we are merely stewards of what belongs to the God who is the Lord over all and who dwells in perichoretic love. This reminds us to responsibly care for the world and cosmos we live in as our participation in his life and love—we seek his best interests, not our own. It reminds us to love our neighbor as ourself rather than being self-seeking, self-willed, and self-indulgent. And all of this we do empowered by and infused with the very presence and person of Jesus Christ in the Spirit.

God has lavished his love and grace on us as creatures meant to reflect his nature and way of being. He has entrusted this world to us and in Jesus has enabled us to be faithful and obedient children who serve him diligently. What are we going to do with the great big sack of God’s love and grace we have been given? What have we been doing with it? Is it time to make a change?

Father, thank you for the generous love and grace you have lavished upon as your creatures, for this amazing creation you have given us, and the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for doing for us in our place what we could not do for ourselves. We trust in your perfect stewardship that we may be by your Spirit good stewards of all we have been given. Amen.

“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
You turn man back into dust …
You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep;
In the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew.
In the morning it flourishes and sprouts anew;
Toward evening it fades and withers away. …
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”
Psalm 90:1–3a, 5b–6, 12 NASB

See also Matthew 25:14–30; 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11.

The Paradox in Leading Others

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By Linda Rex

November 1, 2020, Proper 26 | All Saints—Recently I started an online course at Grace Communion Seminary on humans and salvation. I remember now why it’s been a while since I took graduate level courses—they take up time and require a lot of work and deep thought. But when I am immersed in this way in prayerful thought of God and his work in this world through his Son Jesus, I find myself wrestling in a good way with my motives and heart in pastoring and preaching the gospel.

One of the failures in the western Church today is that we enjoy all the trappings and benefits of the Christian faith while we miss much of the substance. Being relevant to the culture is one thing—being driven by our need for the approval and acceptance of people is another. When we have leaders claiming to be Christian in order to garner votes while their lives and words deny Christ, we are in a dangerous place, for this is something the Lord abhors.

If there is one thing Jesus criticized about the leaders of his day, it was their hypocrisy—their flaunting of the externals of religiosity and their catering to the approval and applause of the people, rather than humbly living out God’s love and grace. They loved the praise of those they lead and enjoyed the financial benefits and power of their positions, but did not always genuinely care about the suffering and struggles of the poor, needy, and disenfranchised, of those in lower social and economic strata than their own.

But I cannot point the finger at others without finding that I have several pointing back at me. In my own life, how have I been more concerned about the approval and respect of the people around me than I have been about their suffering, difficulty, and need? Do I say all the right things but fail to act on what I believe? Too often this has been the case—not because I don’t care, but because I have not always learned to act on what I believe to be true. There has been too often a disconnect between the spiritual realities I believe and trust in, and my living out of these realities in the world in which I live.

We tend to separate the secular or physical from the spiritual, not realizing that in Christ both have come together and have been joined in his person. In the living Word, God has come to dwell with and in man. He has become one of us while remaining fully himself. He, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings our humanity into the presence of the divine, enabling each of us by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, to participate in that intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Our participation in the Triune life is expressed in the way we love God and love others, walking by faith and in tune with the spiritual realities in a world which clings tightly to the tangible, physical realities.

What does this mean for each of us, me included? Living out the gospel in a gospel-resistant world means I may have to suffer the disapproval of those about me, even those I am close to and whom I love. I may have to give up some dearly held dreams or plans so that others may have what they need and so that God’s word can be brought to those who hunger and thirst for it. I may have to do without things I prefer to have so that others can enjoy the benefits of my loss and expense. Am I more concerned about my own financial and physical security than I am the needs and concerns of others? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that, because I’m afraid the answer just might be yes.

Jesus brings us into the paradox of leadership where we find that we bear the responsibility of leading others but we do it humbly, as servants. We do it from a place of brotherhood—of joining others where they are so that we share in their life and struggles, as unique equals in a fellowship of oneness where we offer ourselves as those who serve, give, share, and help. What does this look like in a self-centered, self-absorbed culture? It looks foreign, like an alien in a new land—we don’t fit in, we are the focus of people’s distain, ridicule, abuse, and even rejection. It looks a lot like Jesus Christ.

Leadership in the way Jesus describes it is a humble laying down of one’s life for the sake of those being served. This willingness to be abased, to be the one to serve rather than be served, does not come naturally to us as human beings. But it is the path to genuine leadership. It infuses our leadership with a genuineness and sincerity that inspires others to follow, not because they are intimidated and forced to follow, but because they are compelled to do for others what has been done for them.

Quite frankly, I don’t blame young people today for rejecting organized Christianity, its denominations, and its distinctions. We are earning the consequence of teaching and preaching a gospel we did not live out individually and collectively in humble service and gracious compassion. We are receiving the full measure of payment for our sin, hypocrisy, and religious pride. We are not all guilty, I am sure, but we all can humbly admit that we need to start anew, in a place of grace and humility, beginning again in a spirit of service to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbor, no matter whom they are, as ourselves.

To pause and assess the motives of our hearts is a good thing. As leaders or simply as those who influence others in our lives, we can be so busy living or existing that we don’t take the time to look deeply at what is driving us and why we do the things we do. What is the reason we go to work each morning? Why do we battle the traffic each day? Why don’t we talk with our neighbors or family, or participate in the community barbeque? Could it be that we have never looked beyond ourselves long enough to realize there is a world out there God has included us in that we are called to make better by our humble service, compassion, help, and generosity?

Thankfully, when we experience the reality of our failures to love, give, and share with others, we have the grace of God to cover us and enable us to begin anew. Jesus comes to us by the Spirit to offer us new life, a new start—the ability to begin again in him, living out the reality of who we are as the adopted children of our heavenly Father. Paradoxically, as leaders, we can commit ourselves again to the humble service of others in the Spirit of Christ, turning away from our self-centered preoccupation with ourselves, our own comfort and benefit, toward the care and help of those we lead, and therefore serve.

Heavenly Father, thank you for being our true father, the Source of all. Thank you, Jesus, for being our leader, our teacher, Savior, friend and brother. Grant us the grace and humility to lay down all our hypocrisies, self-centeredness and pride, replacing them with your real presence, genuine love and service. We receive anew your grace and peace, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” 1 Thessalonians 2:9–13 NASB

See also Matthew 23:1–12.

Never Unseen—Embraced by Grace

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By Linda Rex

June 14, 2020, Proper 6—One of the things that has come out of the most recent events, alongside the killing of George Floyd and others, is a reminder that we as human beings have a tendency to be blind to that which we prefer not to look at. Sad to say, if we are honest with ourselves, we do this all the time, preferring to keep our attention on what interests us or gives us pleasure, or what we are most comfortable experiencing.

A while ago I had the privilege of attending a GCI event in Ohio. During this weekend event, our group visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located downtown near the river in Cincinnati, Ohio (https://www.freedomcenter.org/). While most of the museum is dedicated to the history of slavery and its abolition here in America, there is an exhibit on the third floor which I found to be especially moving.

This area was filled with exhibits meant to educate visitors about the current issues in the world today regarding the slavery of men, women, and children. It was hard to see, to accept the reality that so many still live in bondage, but I found I could not turn away from the sights and sounds of those whose voices were seeking yet to be heard. It was almost as if, just by this exhibition being there with people visiting it, those people held in slavery today were given a tiny ability to speak their pain and suffering.

My personal struggle is then, having seen and heard their cries, what am I to do about it? Can I continue to live indifferent to their suffering and their need? But their need is so great, and the work required is so difficult, even beyond my ability! And therein lies the struggle—how do I personally address the needs of those who are still experiencing oppression at the hands of those around them.

The gospel of Matthew tells of how Jesus was going through all the cities and villages in Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. “Seeing the people,” it says, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NASB). That phrase “seeing the people” just leapt out at me today—he didn’t pass by indifferent to their suffering. No, he saw them.

Really seeing these people is what awoke a deep sense of compassion within Jesus and led to him offering them hope and healing. The NIV says these people were “harassed and helpless”. There is a picture created of people who had no one to look after them, to defend or protect them, or to make sure they had what they needed—water, forage, and a safe place to rest. This was the job of the shepherd, and those shepherds they did have were not caring for them, but were preying upon them and oppressing them instead.

Even though Jesus was going about healing and speaking life and hope into these people, he realized the magnitude of what was needed was beyond the capacity of one human being. Even though he was God in human flesh, his purpose was not to do everything by himself—he was mentoring disciples who were learning what it meant to live in other-centered love and service. He meant for his disciples to make other disciples who would make other disciples, and so begin to fill the earth with his compassion, care, and healing, and the good news of God’s love and grace.

As Jesus truly sees the people he is ministering to, he turns to his disciples and says to them that even though there is a great harvest of souls for the kingdom, there were insufficient workers available to do the task. He tells his disciples to pray that God would provide laborers who would participate in this ministry with him. Having truly seen the people in their distress, he longed to set them free and give them new life—Jesus tells his disciples to pray for laborers to help with the harvest.

Jesus himself turned his disciples to the Father as the source of laborers for his spiritual harvest. The heart of the Father toward those who were suffering was expressed by Jesus himself, and he knew the Father’s answer was to bring others to the place where they would be willing and able to help with this task.

And so, in the next scene, we see Jesus sending out twelve disciples in pairs, equipping them with the authority to cast out demons and to heal people, and instructing them to proclaim the kingdom of God. What in the beginning appeared to be a general request to God for helpers ended up being a personal mission for each of these disciples. They were sent out by Jesus and they began to participate in the ministry of God’s love and grace to these struggling people.

In Romans 5:1-8, the apostle Paul tells us that “Jesus is God’s grace embrace of the entire human race” (Rom. 5:2 MB). God saw us while we were still helpless, still sinners, and Jesus died for us. In Christ we find the inspiration to involve ourselves in situations where there are people who seem to be harassed, helpless, confused, aimless, and distressed. There are many more than we can possibly serve ourselves, so we pray God will provide others to come alongside and help. And then we open ourselves up to the possibility that we are the ones God is sending, and we do what we can to offer healing, renewal, and the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to those he places in front of us.

We find in Jesus our own calling as human beings to “see” our fellowman, to hear the voices so often left unheard, and to open our hearts to those who we in the past have preferred to leave our hearts closed to. We draw close to those whom we have pushed aside or ignored, and we allow our hearts to be broken by their suffering and need. We have the strength to speak the truth of God’s love and grace into that which is sinful and wretched, and offer the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.

These are high ideals. And the bar was set high by our Creator and Redeemer Jesus Christ. But he sent his Spirit to infuse us with not only the capacity, but the heart, to meet this challenge. We have a long way to go before every human being is able to live with the plenty and dignity they ought to experience, but we can and must be working to that end. We begin with prayer—that God would send laborers—and then listen to hear God’s call upon our own hearts and lives to participate where we are with his strength and resources to make a difference in this world.

Father, forgive us for not seeing our brothers and sisters who are suffering, harassed, and helpless. Forgive us for diminishing one another, for not speaking life and hope into the lives of those without hope. Forgive us for not living out the truth and grace of Jesus in our relationships with one another. Lord, please send laborers to help with this great spiritual harvest. And if there is a role we are to play in the healing of our family, our city, our state, our nation, our world, please reveal it to us. Send us forth with urgency to heal, bring renewal and to proclaim your kingdom life, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.” Matthew 9:36 MSG

“God’s timing was absolutely perfect; humanity was at their weakest when Christ died their death. … Herein is the extremity of God’s love gift: mankind was rotten to the core when Christ died their death.” Romans 5:6, 8 MB

Loving Others, While Being Betrayed

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By Linda Rex

April 9, 2020, MAUNDY THURSDAY, HOLY WEEK—As our local government steps up its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, there is a concern by many that some people are still not observing the guidelines for staying safe at home. Apparently, the need for most people to restrict the space between themselves and others to prevent the spread of this disease is not being taken seriously.

My husband, who works as a truck driver, recently watched as many travelers entering Florida were being stopped at the border—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut already have travel advisories in place. Even though this coronavirus’ deadly effect is becoming more and more well known, these people still felt the need to travel and vacation in another state.

Since I have inherited my mother’s weak lungs and pulmonary system, and wrestle at times with fibromyalgia (which is an autoimmune disorder), I am one who is in the at-risk population. But there are many in my congregation and extended family who are even more vulnerable than myself. How can I say that continuing to act as though nothing is wrong and allowing myself to be around many other people without restrictions is an act of faith? I find it difficult to do so. I believe I would be testing God.

Nor do I believe it is the best expression of God’s love. I personally feel there is a need to use the wisdom God has given us to create a healthy space around ourselves and others so we do not spread this disease. Even our human bodies and the cells within it teach us the wisdom of having healthy boundaries in these situations.

We’re coming up to Holy Week, and the passage I am writing about today is where Jesus and his disciples sat down to eat the Passover meal together. Jesus interrupted the meal because he wanted to demonstrate to his disciples what it means to express love for others. When we have our own agenda in mind, we often ignore the things which really matter. We may not intend to do so, but it is easy to get so focused on moving forward in life that we lose sight of the true realities.

Earlier Jesus had caught the men disputing as to who was the greatest, and it was imperative that they came to understand that life wasn’t about social position or personal promotion or one’s own personal agenda. The disciples, in their wrestling for power and position, were doing the very thing that Jesus had pointed out over and over as flaws in the Jewish leadership. The disciples knew better, but there they were, acting just like the others—seeking the glories of this human society while dismissing as unimportant, the real glory they were created for. There was a deeper, underlying purpose at work in life and Jesus needed them to see it and understand it so they could participate in it.

Jesus’ love for the disciples was not deterred by their failures. When he rose from the table, he girded himself with a towel, got a basin of water, and began washing their feet. Appalling as this may have been to the disciples—it was work only the lowliest servant would do—they watched Jesus do it for each of them. Peter told Jesus that he wasn’t going to allow him to stoop to that level. Jesus merely replied that then Peter would not belong to him. At this, Peter jumped to the other extreme, telling Jesus to wash all of him.

Jesus’ point was not so much the washing as it was the act of what he was doing. He was willing to stoop to whatever level was necessary to include the disciples in his life and ministry. He girded himself with a towel and took on the task of cleaning their feet. What Jesus would do in the following hours after this meal would involve a task of cleaning which would be even more degrading than washing dusty feet—he would cleanse our humanity once and for all from the dirt and grime of evil, sin, and death. This was a much more serious cleansing, one which only he could do. And he was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve it, even going all the way through death on the cross into the grave.

I believe that it is significant that Jesus washed every disciples’ feet. This means that Judas Iscariot most likely was present and received the gift of grace in the wiping of his feet. But Jesus knew that the washing of Judas’ feet would not wash his heart—he had already given himself over to the evil one by making the decision to betray Jesus to those who were seeking to kill him. This is why Christ said, “Not all of you are clean.”

In the offering of himself in sacrifice, Jesus did not leave anyone out. He included every human being in his offering on the cross, but the truth is, not everyone receives the gift he gives in his humble sacrifice. Humility is a gift we give to others and shows our willingness to stoop to the lowest level necessary to include others in our love and life. Jesus taught us in this simple act that we need to be willing to love one other in humility, service, and sacrifice. It is in this way that we express in the deepest way our love for God and one another.

Jesus faced the crisis of his human life on this evening, knowing he would shortly be hanging on a Roman cross, by stooping to wash the feet of his disciples. He was willing to do even the most menial task so that others could one day share in his intimate relationship with his Father. No greater love can be shown than that of laying down one’s life for another and Jesus began this laying down of his life by humbly washing the feet of his disciples.

The truest expression we have of genuine humanity is to love one another—to care enough about the other people in our lives that we do not unnecessarily put them at risk. We set aside our own agenda on behalf of the needs of others. We are willing to serve even if it means losing the approval and acceptance of those around us or it inconveniences us. We are open to giving of ourselves when others would not deign to dirty their fingers for fear of contracting the disease. We are willing to work at tasks which we would not ordinarily do so that others may be helped and cared for.

There is a wideness to the love and mercy of God which includes the broad spectrum of human kindness we are called to express during this difficult time in our history, in the midst of our own crisis. As human beings, the truest expression of our humanity is to love one another. Some of us will do this by treating those sick with this disease, putting themselves at risk for our sakes. Others will do this by continuing to provide essential services, risking the loss of their interaction with their loved ones during this time. And all the rest of us can do this by being careful of each other’s space, and by seeing that those who are most vulnerable have what they need when they are unable to get it themselves.

What is most beautiful about a crisis as is before us today is that we can see the face of Jesus in each of us as we humble ourselves to serve, love, and sacrifice for one another. The Spirit of God’s love and grace flowing through people all over the world is evident as we rise to the occasion of battling this coronavirus and do so in such a way that we set aside our own personal agenda for the sake of those more vulnerable and less fortunate than ourselves. May God’s grace through Jesus and by his Spirit continue to enable us to truly love one another.

Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take the humblest place so that we might rise with you, sharing in your eternal glory through your death and resurrection. Grant us the grace to truly love one another as you have loved us, to humble ourselves to serve and sacrifice, and to be willing as we need to, to lay down our lives for one another in your Name. Amen.

“Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. … ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’” John 13:1-4, 34-35 NASB

Surrendering Our Expectations

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By Linda Rex

This month at Good News Fellowship we are celebrating all the hands which join together to minister to the people in our community and to the body of Christ. We have so many people in our little congregation who are integral in some way to the ministry of Community Café and to the church itself. I am grateful to each person who contributes their gifts, prayers, and financial support.

I realize there are times when we wonder whether or not all the effort is worth it. We sacrifice and struggle to serve, and it may seem like it doesn’t make a difference or we can’t seem to do enough to satisfy the needs or expectations of those we are serving.

Needs seem to multiply the more we try to meet them. We cannot control the weather, or the destructiveness of fire and wind. Jesus said we would always have the poor among us, for there will always be someone who can’t or won’t live within their means. It seems there will always be needs for us to meet as a participation in God’s care for his creation.

Expectations, however, are a different thing entirely. The longer I am in pastoral ministry, the more I realize the power of expectations to cause disappointment, discouragement, resentment, and disunity.

Some people do not realize the unreasonable expectations they put on pastors and others in pastoral ministry. I know of pastors’ wives who dread the phone ringing just when the family is setting down to dinner because it seems to always be the same person demanding instant attention about something which is not urgent nor life-threatening.

Pastors and those in pastoral ministry have to have really strong personal boundaries otherwise it is very easy for them to allow people to invade every part of their lives to the extent there is nothing left for their own family. They often find themselves saying yes to too many things. There are a lot of good things to do—people to care for and needs to be met. And the list of things to do seems to grow all the time.

It is because we have a heart to care for others and to show them God’s love that it is easy to say yes to too many things. It is easy to burn ourselves out working for Christ, when Christ never once asked us to do any of the things we are doing. This is why it is so important we be able to discern God’s real calling to each of us individually and collectively, and to only participate fully in those particular things God is calling us to do with him.

But in saying no to certain things, we need to be willing to accept the reality we are going to disappoint someone. We are going to fail to meet someone’s expectations of us, and that is going to feel uncomfortable for a while for both us and for them.

I have a hard time saying no to opportunities to serve in my community group. I would really like to be doing everything they ask me to do. But I have learned I cannot say yes unless I am certain it is what God wants me to be doing and I genuinely have the time, the ability, and the calling to do it. I realize saying no is going to make them unhappy just as it makes me unhappy, and it very well may cause them to draw away from me and not include me in future opportunities. But no is what I need to say.

I am grateful I minister to a congregation which is so respectful of my time and home life, I have to remind them to call me when they are going through a difficult time. I am grateful they remind me to take care of myself and my family, and they often step up when I have more going on than I can do on my own.

I don’t have a spouse to share my load, and I am deeply grateful when my brothers and sisters are willing to help me and serve me in so many ways. But realize I also have to be respectful of their time, energy, and capacity to serve as well. I need to not have expectations of people in my congregation which are unreasonable or insensitive.

Sometimes I forget to be thoughtful and considerate to my spiritual community, and I regret it when I do. My brothers and sisters in Christ pour themselves out generously and freely, so I pray Abba will pour generously and freely back into them in every way possible so they will be renewed and encouraged rather than drained and exhausted.

Sometimes we can have and do express unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of people and do not realize we are doing it. Unhealthy expectations of others can cause pain and disrupt relationships. When we know someone has a caregiving, generous personality, we need to protect them from their tendency to over give rather than taking advantage of it all the time.

We also need to respect the humanity of those who serve or lead others in the body of Christ. I cannot enumerate the veiled criticisms I have received about decisions which cost me hours of prayer, fasting, and tears to make. It seems sometimes people expect me as a pastor to not have anything in my life which I regret or which I did not have control over. Their expectation is I will always have lived my life in a way which meets their idea of perfection. Such expectations are unreasonable and unhealthy. The truth is, any pastor I know who is worth their salt is an ongoing creation of redemption in Christ and has places in his or her life where God is at work right now healing, transforming, and renewing.

There are times when in conversation with someone, I perceive sly innuendo and subtle hints of how I need to improve my ministry or home life. This seems to be an unpleasant but natural part of the journey of pastoral ministry. I have always been open and transparent, and it tends to open me up to criticism. But I would rather live this way than to feel like I need to hide myself away from the people I love and serve all the time. Real relationship requires authenticity, even though such transparency opens us up to criticism and unrealized expectations. Real relationship requires a lot of grace—grace which pastors and those in pastoral ministry need a lot of.

Perhaps as we celebrate this month, it is good time to be reminded of the generosity and kindness of the God who laid everything down for us. This is the God who in Christ willingly joined himself to our humanity and sent his Spirit so he could share in every part of our life and our service to others. This is the God who replenishes, renews, and restores us, and who inspires us to care for and love others. We draw our life and our being from him. May we be filled anew with his love and grace, and find renewal in him as we serve him and those he brings into our lives.

Thank you, Abba, for each and every person in our lives who serves you and each one of us. Thank you for those who give of their time, prayers, and resources so that others may be blessed, cared for, and comforted. Free us from our unhealthy and insensitive expectations of others, and enable us to be gracious and compassionate in every circumstance, and sensitive to the limitations of those who serve us. Replenish and renew all those in pastoral ministry, and remind them what they do to share in your ministry is valuable and worthwhile, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.” Philippians 2:17-18 NASB

“Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians

Oh, To Be Somebody…

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Gathering of pumpkins
Gathering of pumpkins

by Linda Rex

This morning I was thinking about all the ways we go about trying to find or create our own significance in this world. As we grow up, we want people to notice us, to see that we are somebody. Unless, of course, being invisible is a safer way of being for us.

But this drive to be noticed, to be considered worthwhile, motivates approaches to life and living that are not always healthy and sound-minded. I came across the story of a young man who discovered this power of significance the day he first rode a bull in a rodeo competition. Somehow, being the guy at school who rode the bulls gave him a feeling of self-worth and made him believe he had value he would not have had otherwise. It was only after he began to evaluate the cost in terms of suffering and loss of life that he began to look for other ways to establish his significance.

It is interesting to flip through the channels on the TV and to look at all the shows based on this whole premise—if I’m the best at this then I’ll be somebody—if I do this thing in this unique way, everyone will notice me. Watching one of the newest sitcoms the other day, I realized that the whole concept of a person trying to be somebody, to be noticed, to be approved of, to be a good person, drives so many of the plotlines. It’s just our story as human beings.

And this story is as old as the history of humanity. My morning reading in the Old Testament today was the 15th chapter of Samuel. God had given Israel the king they requested and his name was Saul. He started out a pretty humble man, but in this chapter we find that somehow being significant and important supplanted his humility.

God instructed King Saul to lead the Israelites into battle against a particular king and told him to destroy everything associated with that particular group of people. God wasn’t being cruel—he was just exacting justice and was inviting his people to be a part of that process. (He does that today in a similar way through our armies and police forces, though he typically doesn’t call for genocide any longer.)

In this case, though, the point the writer was making was that King Saul hadn’t grasped the importance of following God’s instructions exactly. He won the battle, but he kept the king alive and brought the best of the cattle and animals, ostensibly for an offering to God. Then he built a memorial to himself. Note: the memorial built was to the king, not to God, the One who had given the king success in battle.

Needless to say, God was ticked, and so was Samuel. In the unpleasant conversation that followed, King Saul was more concerned about the opinion of the people and his significance with them than he was about the reality that he had alienated himself from the God who made him king in the first place.

Sometimes the price we pay for some type of significance and worth and value is too high. Sometimes we lay down our most important relationships in payment for this feeling of importance and power. We give over the only things that in the long run will carry us through eternity—our relationships with God and each other—for the sake of our moment of glory. Is it really worth the price we are willing to pay?

I think it is instructive that Jesus Christ spent the majority of his earthly existence refusing to accept any pats on the back for being the Messiah. Instead he focused on being a servant. Over and over, he reminded his disciples of the inverse values of the kingdom of God: the least are the greatest; the servant will lead; the dead will live; the rejected are those who are most valued by God.

In being God in human flesh, Jesus had every right to expect people to make everything be about him. Yet, instead, he pointed people to his Father. Whatever he did, he did in, with and for his heavenly Father. It wasn’t about him. It was about the will of God.

How clearly Christ demonstrated that our human existence isn’t about us finding some significance in ourselves or in what we do! It’s not about us at all. We don’t find our value and worth in anything we say, think or do. We only find it in God and in his Son, who enveloped our humanity within his own and gave it ultimate significant, worth and value in himself.

So when we live wrapped up in trying to find some value and significance in our own feeble, human way, we will find in the end only emptiness and loss. Human applause and approval are fickle things. They come and go like the weather changes.

But when we surrender this search to the will and purposes of Almighty God, and seek Christ and value his significance and worth, we find that we are cherished, valued and significant ways that really matter. We are God’s treasure. He has every intention to share his life and glory with us in Christ forever. And that’s something worth sacrificing everything for.

Heavenly Father, we confess that too often we make life all about us, and about what others may think or feel about us. Forgive our self-centered, self-seeking ways of being, and grant that, in Jesus, we might live God-centered, other-centered lives instead. Grant us the grace to obey you first and foremost—to surrender our wishes and wills to you, Almighty God, no matter the cost to ourselves. Thank you for the grace you give us, and for your precious Spirit who awakens us to our true value and significance in Christ. Thank you for counting us as precious, valued and significant forever. In Christ, we pray. Amen.

“Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.’ And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night.” 1 Samuel 15:10–11

You are Enough as You Are

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by Linda Rex

Last night I was at a sub shop exploring the pages of Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics” and I overheard a young lady in the booth behind me informing a couple new employees of company policy. Having performed that routine myself in my previous employment as a human resources director, I found it amusing to inadvertently hear her slam the company’s policy against profanity. Apparently the opinion of the two young women she was instructing was more important to her than the preferences of the owner of the business.

At that particular point I had been reading what Barth had to say about spiritual gifts and service within and without the church. Barth emphasized that the new life God has given us in Christ includes all of life, not just the going-to-church parts of life. When we recognize who we are in Christ, it impacts how we think, live, talk, and relate to others. Having Christ and therefore the Father living within via the Holy Spirit means that all of our human existence is taken up and made sacred, holy, and should be committed to God’s purposes. This includes telling a new employee what the company’s expectations are.

Some of us focus on learning what our gifts are and strive to be putting them to use in God’s service. Others of us are still struggling to figure out if we even have any gifts to offer in this way. But what God is helping me to see is that just finding and offering my gifts is not all that God has in mind for me. Indeed, he is looking for something a little deeper.

Truly, to seek to know God not only as Father, but as the indwelling Christ, is a lifelong process. It takes time and experience to come to know and recognize the voice of God in the Spirit, and to obey Jesus as he leads us in a real and personal way moment by moment. This being led by and filled with the Spirit is a challenging process, to say the least.

And it’s all of grace. For I realize again and again that God speaks and too often I am preoccupied with my own concerns, or too busy, or I miss the cues he is giving in showing me where to go and what to do. I don’t always see with his eyes, even though he gives me the eyes of the Spirit. I don’t always hear with his ears even though so often the Father is speaking—through other people, through events in my life, through the book I’m reading or the movie I’m watching. If I were alert to all the ways God is interacting with me moment by moment, I think I would be overwhelmed. I am so very grateful that God is gracious and kind!

So the result of that little episode in the sub shop was that I once again saw that I need to take some time for silence and solitude to hear the Word of God to me. What gifts, abilities, and skills has God placed within me and how does he want me to use them in this season and situation in my life? But more than that, I need to quit apologizing for who he has created me to be and start fully using what God has poured out on me. I need to quit caring so much about the opinions of others and place as first priority the will and sovereignty of God and the full expression of the Christ within by the Holy Spirit.

And that’s tough. Not only does it involve a letting go, but it also involves a grabbing hold of life and making full investment of all that I am as a human being in the things that really matter. I can’t afford to be a part-time, half-hearted Christian any longer. I can’t let other people decide for me what I am to do with my time, energy and efforts. That’s what Christ meant when he said “Follow me.” It’s his call, not theirs or mine.

Jesus told the man who wanted to go home to bury his father “Let the dead bury the dead.” Christ is calling us into a priority relationship that involves giving all of life to him, even if that means giving him preferential treatment in comparison to our relationships with those near and dear to us. To give one’s life as a “living sacrifice” means that there is a laying down of all that matters most to us so that, in Christ, we can receive it all back in a new way in his kingdom life.

Who we are in Christ is enough. We don’t have to reach any other standard. Christ is the standard we are to meet and he has met this standard for us in taking on our humanity in the incarnation through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the gift of the Spirit, he invests himself in us. And so, we are enough, in him, for whatever we may face in our lives.

But let’s you and me be a full expression of Christ, not just a brief glimpse. Let’s respond fully to the Spirit and let him transform us—transfigure us—conform us to the image of Christ. Because this is what God wants for you and for me.

Lord, thank you that you have given us yourself by the Spirit so that we can be a full expression of you in your life and love. Thank you for your grace through which we are able to grow up in you and become all that you have in mind for us. For it is only through you, by you and in you that this is possible. In your name, we pray. Amen.

“I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him….So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.” Romans 12:3, 6 MSG

The Flip Side of Ministry

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by Linda Rex

I anticipated another note of encouragement as I opened a friend’s letter last week. She had been like a spiritual mentor to me as God prepared me for ministry. Her ongoing support and prayers have been a real blessing to me in so many ways.

Sadly, though, this letter did not contain any positive news. Rather, it was to let me know that she had been rejected as a volunteer in the ministry she had helped to start and had faithfully served in for seven years. Her heart was broken, obviously, for her work there was instrumental in building and maintaining that ministry from nothing to serving hundreds of poor and needy people each month.

When someone pours their heart, their finances, their prayers, their whole life into ministry to others, they often become deeply attached to those they help care for. This friend’s heart was broken because she was called by God to care for those she had grown to love in this way and now she could not do it.

This is the flip side to ministry—when you give your heart to others in service to them it very well might get broken. When you lay your life on the line for others, you may very well lose it. When you give freely to others, they may take everything you own.

When God calls us to do ministry of any kind (and for many people their vocation is their ministry) he doesn’t promise a smooth road or a long-term commitment. Often our service has ups and downs, joys and deep disappointments. And at some point it will come to an end and God will begin a new thing. Incarnating the life of Jesus in our everyday life is no different than when the God of heaven took on human flesh and was born in a manger. God didn’t pick the easy way of life, but the humble, difficult path of being the Suffering Servant. And this is what he calls us to as well.

The benefit we have is that Jesus Christ paved the way before us. He lived the life we are to live, died our death and rose from the grave. And even better, he took us with himself into the presence of the Father. Now, when we do ministry, we never do it on our own initiative or under our own power. All that we do in ministry is only a participation in Christ’s eternal ministry. Whatever we give is sharing in his eternal giving. For Jesus Christ is both the Giver and the Gift. So whatever may happen to us in ministry, we are not alone. It is not our ministry—it is his ministry.

And so when the tough stuff happens and the disappointments come, we surrender to the leadership and purposes of Jesus as he works to fulfill his mission in the world. We allow God to determine our next steps, trusting that he has something better in mind. Unlike our Christian institutions, which tend to enclose God’s mission in the world into one way of working and serving over years and years in the midst of a changing culture, the Holy Spirit is always doing something new, meeting people where they are in their culture and personal circumstances.

Doing life and ministry with Jesus in this way means there will be ups and downs, and there will be beginnings and ends. Though the end of the baby born in a manger was death on a cross on a hill, the ministry of Jesus Christ only began there. The resurrected Christ ministers to us even today and stands as our Worship Leader, our Priest, our Mediator and Intercessor forever in our place. All that we do, we do in him. And this is the other “flip side to ministry.”

No matter how tough it gets, no matter how many losses we suffer, we always start anew. Because we know and trust that Jesus Christ is in the midst of it all, guiding and directing it according to the Father’s will by the Holy Spirit. We are reminded that it is God who serves each and every one of us and we get to share in that service. So whatever we do in life, whether a vocation or ministry of service, we do it in Christ by the Spirit to the glory of the Father. And so it has meaning and value. And in Christ it is blessed. So we serve in joy no matter which “side” of ministry we happen to be on at the moment.

Father, thank you for giving us your Son to minister to us and so that we can do ministry in him. Thank you for sending your Spirit to inspire, lead and guide us as well as comfort us as we care for others and serve you. Refresh our hearts, souls and minds so that we can freely and fully serve you and each person you bring into our lives. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

“…but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.” 2 Cor. 6:4-10 (NASB)